Cuba is a contradiction in every context. It is a place where a bellhop can make more than a doctor. A society where people, like our tour guide Mercedes, left teaching students English so she could support her family in the tourism industry.
This is no exception at Organopónico Vivero Alamar, which is regarded as Cuba’s largest, successful, private farming cooperative. Here in a neighborhood that was originally intended to become sports fields and hospitals, farmers make 2-3 times more than the average salary of most Cubans.
This is what initially drew me to this project. I may be a nature nerd, but I love to root for the underdog. The thought of farmers working fair hours, for high wages and still producing a quality product is astounding.
When I rose out of the cushioned seats of the tour bus transporting us all week—making us stand out like sore thumbs—I couldn’t wait to see what hid behind the palm trees and wire fencing.
Flip-flops were a bad idea. Within the first few steps into the farm, dark-copper soil covered my feet, but I didn’t mind. Even the dirt was incredible, I desperately wanted to sneak a pot of it back for the sprouts I have at home.
We were led over to a man wearing a baseball cap, striped polo shirt and large framed glasses. His name is Ernando, a forest engineer who would showed around the farm that morning. He has been working at Vivero Alamar for 16 years, giving him seniority.
This is how money is dispersed among the workers. Those who have been at Vivero Alamar longer get a larger share in the cooperative, thus making more. Ernando explained he has accumulated a 6 percent share and earns 1,600 pesos a month.
Half of the overall profit made goes towards overhead costs and investments. The other half goes directly back into the hands of the workers.
Farming in Cuba is done out of necessity and mere survival. This sounds like basic knowledge, but the severity in Ernando’s voice made it clear that this is not for the faint of heart, “If we don’t produce, we don’t earn.” And sometimes Vivero Alamar does not meet its quota. He went on to add, “That is the difference we have from a state owned place. State owned places have fixed incomes.”
Issues arise from being a privatized cooperative, one being lack of financial backing. But, some are less obvious such as restrictions to the state water supply. “We cannot take the water because it is for the people, we have eight deep water wells which we use to grow with,” said Ernando.
Along with the privilege of earning high wages, Ernando has had the opportunity to live abroad for a year in Venezuela. He went specifically to work in urban gardens and teach others about the farming philosophy practiced at Vivero Alamar.
After giving us a brief informative talk about the organic practices at Vivero Alamar—“No chemicals here, only organic” was repeated many times—we were led to the composting area.
The agricultural techniques used at Vivero Alamar are not inventive—nor is agroecology a new movement by any means—this is the kind of farming practiced by our great-grandfathers. The farm is an agricultural paradigm, bringing people from around the world to learn about this green sanctuary, but why?
Braulio Quintero is a Ph.D candidate at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. While building a nonprofit based in Puerto Rico, which studies environmental philosophies similar to Vivero Alamar, he has learned how the practice of urban farming are valuable. “The current state of agriculture in the United States is a business, not necessarily to feed people or give nutritious food. All businesses are subject to make money. Quintero added, “The best food is created with the best practices. There is too big of an economic interest tied to agriculture in the United States. But I think it is possible on small scale projects or farms.”
We passed farmers watering the plants, pausing to drink directly from the hose. Rows of brightly pigmented plants were tended to carefully by men in the field, wearing straw hats and high boots. They leaned against their tools, skeptically looking at us foreigners.
I was instantly envious of these men who got to work under a baby blue sky, surrounded by vibrant life. As they turned back to their work–whacking garden hoes and pushing wheelbarrows–they looked at ease. I cursed working behind a desk in an air-conditioned room at that moment.
The composting area has about five beds, shaded by a roof constructed from leaves. We were informed that worms are an essential factor to producing the fertile compost. The worms were originally purchased from California—but they are an African breed—which makes them suitable for warmer climates like Cuba.
The compost is comprised of manure from the mules, vegetable matter, and other compostable items found right on the farm. The worms eat all of this and help speed up the process of decomposition. The final product is nitrogen rich soil, free from chemicals and created from reused materials.
Ernando encouraged us to reach down and touch the soil. Soft to the touch, it reminded me of fine-ground coco powder. From the little portion of compost I had picked up, there were many worms in my hand. It turns out the worms reproduce at a very fast rate and have voracious appetites.
After creating the distinctive soil, the compost is taken from these beds and lined within trays that seeds are inserted to. Preparing the seedlings is important work. We met three women taking care of lettuce seedlings, which comprises 70 percent of their crop.
As the mob of tourists approached—many armed with expensive cameras—the women lounging on plastic lawn furniture jumped up quickly to fix their hair. Out of the 160 workers, 40 are women. With smirks on their faces, they showed us the seedlings and how they looked once they were mature enough to be planted.
I stood to the side next to one of the women workers, her wrists decorated with elaborate bracelets. We asked her how it was working at Vivero Alamar. She told us about how competitive it is to get at job. Even though Ernando told us that anyone is welcome to apply at the farm for a job, most are only hired on for three months during the busy season and then are let go.
The woman’s hands rested against her frilled orange apron as she talked. Alamar—the neighborhood the farm is located—is where 95 percent of the workers live. She explained with lack of transportation, Vivero Alamar is a haven for most people living in the neighborhood.
In fact, not only does it offer steady employment, workers are often given fresh produce to take home with them and the market attached to the farm offers fair prices compared to others. Aside from agriculture, the farm offers its workers interest free loans, haircuts and various human resource opportunities.
The farm is truly an agricultural amenity for the entire community. The elderly, couples, grandparents, retirees, friends and neighbors have found a place to call home at Vivero Alamar.
Alejandro Ramirez Anderson grew up in the neighborhood of Alamar and would buy vegetables from the same market I visited, located next to the farm. Out of curiosity, he decided to go inside of the farm to see how the food he was eating was grown.
He claims that he knew he had to make a documentary about Vivero Alamar from that initial visit. Released in 2014, his film “Tierralismo” focused directly on the people who work at Vivero Alamar and how revolutionary an agricultural neighborhood can be in Cuba.
One goal he had in mind while shooting his documentary “Tierralismo,” was to change the way farmers are seen within Cuban society. While touring through the United States in April 2015 he commented, “Throughout the history of Cuba the role of the farmer is largely marginalized. They are always in a low level on the social scale. These are the people (farmers) that are getting better paid for their labor in Cuba. They have more access to economic resources for their labor than other Cuban people.”
Ramirez Anderson adds, “There is this attitude, that it is unjust that these farmers are making more money than other people—when it’s something so “simple” to secure food for human beings.”
For a country which has suffered a lack of food production I find it ironic that farmers at Vivero Alamar would be regarded so lowly.
Vivero Alamar was created during a time when Cuba needed to produce food. The Iron Curtain fell and Cuba was cut off from most of its food importation. This was a hard time for everyone, basic necessities became scarce and people were scared.
As I stood outside of the market, trying to comprehend everything I had just seen, I turned to Mercedes. She held a bag of groceries with pineapple, herbs and lettuce—explaining to us the market is much cheaper at the farm than the one near her home.
I asked, “Mercedes what was it like being a mother during the Special Period?” Her face turned sober and she said “I would go to bed and well…I would lay awake at night and not be able to sleep because I didn’t know how I was going to feed my kids the next day.”
Organopónico Vivero Alamar is a lasting example that Cuba is self-sufficient. With the grassroots movement of organic agriculture sprouting up across the country, people can find comfort knowing food is available. The harsh realities of everyday life for Cubans is still prevalent, but everyday life is that much easier, with food in hand.