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Howard Prussack/Courtesy photo

A Cuban farmer at work.

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Organic farming, Cuban style

A local farmer visits Cuba and its two-decade-long experiment with small-scale agriculture

PUTNEY—With President Obama recently easing travel and trade restrictions with Cuba, Americans can now visit Cuba for approved purposes, including educational activities, without having to obtain a Treasury License.

One local farmer recently took the opportunity to visit the island as part of a volunteer “farmer exchange program” to trade information on agriculture.

Howard Prussack, who owns High Meadow Farms in Putney, made the 11-day trip in early-spring with Mimi Arnstein, owner of Wellspring Farm in Marshfield, former farmer Charles Mitchell, of Elmore, and staff from Winrock International.

Winrock, the Arkansas-based nonprofit, works “around the world to increase economic opportunity, sustain natural resources, and protect the environment [...] to assist farmers, agribusinesses, and local organizations worldwide [...] in a wide variety of areas, including agricultural sciences, farming, agribusiness, enterprise development, marketing, food processing, food safety, and organizational development,” said the organization’s press release.

Prussack, who said he has been involved with Winrock since “about 2005,” has also traveled to Nepal, Burma, and El Salvador to train farmers in organic farming and bookkeeping.”

This trip was different, Prussack said.

“It’s an assessment of need. You can’t pretend to know what the Cuban farmers need until you get there,” he said.

Prussack said he had never considered visiting Cuba. But “on the day Obama announced Cuba” as easier for Americans to visit, “I got a call that night” from Winrock.

“I’ve been farming forever,” Prussack said, noting that in 1978, his High Meadow Farms was the first certified organic farm in Vermont.

Now, the self-described “ambassador” said that he’s “traveled the world, because I run an organic farm. I never thought that would happen to me.”

While others choose different careers that might seem more glamorous, “I stayed on the farm, growing vegetables and plants.”

The Cuba-bound group relied in part on the extensive contacts of Margarita Fernandez, executive director of Vermont Caribbean Institute (VCI), Prussack said.

He also relied on her for translation. “I knew no Spanish other than how to order a cold beer,” he said.

Prussack characterized the Cuban culture as “progressive, open, [and] curious,” noting that because of its free education system, the Cuban literacy rate is 99.8 percent.

Cubans are also fun.

“Everyone dances the Samba” in Cuba, he said. “They teach babies to read, and dance the Samba,” he joked, mentioning his own lack of dancing skills.

“One of the things that impressed me was how safe it felt there,” he said, “even in Havana, walking around at night on dark streets. The crime rate is very low. There are no drugs, no guns on the island.”

He said there was not a feeling of “oppression by armed guards. We hardly noticed the police. We rarely saw any cops.”

“Women feel very safe there,” Prussack added. “There’s a strong women’s empowerment there, in Cuban culture.”

“The Cubans were very friendly,” he said. “They’re curious to see what we’re like.”

A different world for farmers

Prussack described Cuban farms as “fabulous. It’s almost like a bizarro world, but a very nice bizarro world,” noting the difference between American and Cuban attitudes toward farmers and farming.

“I like to work with farmers,” Prussack said, adding, “they’re usually the last to get benefits” from our culture. “Except in Cuba,” he said, where he saw farming considered one of the noblest endeavors in Cuban culture, because, as he explained, “What’s more important than feeding people?”

“We met with many different farmers and co-ops,” he said, noting Cubans are “big on urban agriculture and eco-agriculture.”

But not because it’s a trendy thing to do.

Cubans had to grow their crops using ecological methods, and they had to do it close to where most people lived, in order to survive.

With the strict trade embargo President Kennedy established in 1962, the United States essentially cut Cuba off from most of the rest of the world, leaving the Soviet bloc as Cuba’s main trading partner. According to Oxfam America’s report, “The Food Crisis In Cuba,” 88 percent of Cuba’s trade took place with eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by 1987.

When socialist eastern Europe dissolved in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba entered what is referred to as the “special period,” which is a nice way of saying “near-starvation.”

With Cuba’s sudden isolation from the rest of the world, their food production system faced almost total collapse.

For decades leading up to the “special period,” Cuba’s main crops had been sugar cane and citrus fruits, mostly for export.

Most of the food Cubans ate was imported.

Petroleum was also imported, so, even the small amount of food Cuba produced suffered.

One might not think of petroleum as a necessary component of agriculture, but it powers various aspects of food production and delivery, such as tractors in the field, processing plants to can things like tomatoes, and refrigerated trucks to bring the produce from the countryside to the cities.

It also serves as a necessary raw material for pesticides and some common fertilizers.

As the Oxfam America report states, “Daily per-capita caloric intake fell from 2,908 in 1989 to 1,863 calories in 1995, according to the USDA, and protein intake dropped by 40 percent. Some estimated that the average Cuban lost 20 pounds by 1994."

But, as Prussack explained, “the Cuban way is to make a bad thing into a good thing."

“The land was run down by [growing] sugar cane,” Prussack said, explaining, “there was no rotation, and lots of chemical fertilizers."

Cuba rebuilt its food distribution system and fed its populace through a combination of government programs and traditional farming practices.

Thus, by growing food closer to where most people live, and eschewing farming that relies on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba began a de facto organic, mostly urban, agricultural system.

Learning from each other

Prussack said the majority of the questions the Cuban farmers asked of their American counterparts were about “scaling up” vegetable production.

Because Cuba’s agriculture was so limited for so long, and little exists of what Prussack characterized as a “natural history of growing vegetables,” he said Cuba has “sought out old farmers, old ways, to rebuild agriculture in a more ‘eco’ course.”

Some of the neo-traditionalist methods Prussack saw Cuban farmers use were raised beds and “huge” worm beds for compost.

“Cuban farmers cultivate their own Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt),” which Prussack said is a “natural pesticide” used to combat, amongst other pests, the damaging cabbage worm. Prussack was also impressed by the farmers cultivating their own mycorrhizae, a root fungus crucial to healthy soil life.

Prussack noted the Cuban farming methods are “low-input.” He explained: “there’s no petroleum, little mechanical equipment, no imported fertilizer, and mostly no imported seeds.” He compared it to Vermont’s “high-input” agriculture, even on organic farms like his which use tractors.

From his experience, Prussack said he learned “Cuban farmers need stuff, they need equipment."

“We saw one tractor” during the 11 days Prussack and the other volunteers visited, “and it was a 1950s-era Russian” model. That tractor was shared among several farms in the community, as was the one rototiller he saw.

Prussack believes the isolation helped Cuban agriculture, noting “the skills they had to learn in 50 years without the influence of the USA improved their skill set."

“They don’t want to use GMOs and chemical fertilizer,” Prussack said, and he learned from his conversations with the Cuban farmers that “Monsanto is hovering” over Cuba, but the company “is not well-liked by [Cuban] farmers,” he said.

Prussack said he learned valuable lessons from his Cuban hosts about organic, low-input farming.

He also learned how to relax.

“Low-stress,” he said, was the message from Cuban farmers. “Don’t stress it."

One remarkable realization Prussack said he learned was how close Cuba is to the United States, even though for nearly 50 years, relations were severed between the two nations.

“Cuba is the same distance from Key West as Hartford [Conn.] is from my house,” he said, but Cuba may as well have been on another planet.

“I can’t wait to go back,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #306 (Wednesday, May 20, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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