Havana Organic Coop Farm Sets a Model for Health and Sustainability

Continuous upgrading and a "vocation" for farming are two keys to the success of a cooperative that could serve as a model for boosting agriculture in Cuba.

May 20, 2013 | Source: Tierramerica | by Ivet Gonzalez

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HAVANA – “The people are the only thing that matters,” says agronomist Miguel Angel Salcines, who then goes on to list a series of other “secondary” factors that have turned Vivero Alamar, an urban farm on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, into a rare success story in the country’s depressed agricultural sector.

“We offer flexible hours, relatively high wages, and professional upgrading, among other benefits that make the cooperative an attractive option. This is how we attract high quality human resources, who are crucial today in order to produce more organic food,” said Salcines, the president of Vivero Alamar, where production has been chemical-free since 2000.

The cooperative’s recipe for success also includes transparent accounting, equitable profit sharing, interest-free loans for the workers, free lunches, and support for women workers with young children or others in their care: they are allowed to arrive up to an hour later than the official beginning of the work day, at seven in the morning, Salcines told Tierramerica.

Human capital played a decisive role in raising production at this urban agriculture venture, founded in 1997 on an initial 800 square meters of land in the community of Alamar, around 15 kilometers east of downtown Havana. This is why Salcines believes that the key to achieving food security in Cuba lies in agricultural workers with a “vocation” for farming, as well as training.

In 2012, world food prices skyrocketed as a result of poor crop yields in various centers of agricultural production, such as the United States. The Caribbean countries, which are net food importers, suffered the greatest impact in the region, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Less than five percent of the population of Cuba suffers from malnutrition, but the country was forced to spend over 1.633 billion dollars on food imports last year, an unsustainable expenditure for an economy in crisis for more than 20 years, specialists say.

Reducing this massive expenditure by raising domestic food production remains a challenge for the government of President Raul Castro. In fact, in the first quarter of this year, the National Office of Statistics and Information reported a 7.8 percent decrease in agricultural production other than sugar cane.

“There is a big demand that needs to be met, which is why we are able to sell everything we grow,” said Salcines, one of the founders of the cooperative, which now covers a total of 10.14 hectares and produces more than 230 different crop varieties (primarily garden vegetables, as well as some fruits, grains and tubers) in greenhouses and open fields.