A Cuban Farmer Plants for a Greener Future

Article by Lynn Chawengwongsa
Slideshow by Kerry Mack
Video by Shannon Jones 

Fernando Funes-Monzote changed out of his denim overalls, though he still wore mud-spattered rubber boots. As he sat in an airy thatched-roof patio, a wide-brimmed straw hat on his right knee, four dogs vied for attention as he discussed his research at the University of Matanzas, where he earned a Ph.D. in production ecology and resource conservation. Funes-Monzote, 44, looked like a farmer, but didn’t sound like one.

On his experimental farm in Artemisa Province, La Finca Marta, Funes-Monzote embraces a movement to cultivate “agroecology” in Cuba. This method of sustainable farming, he believes, may be the best hope for Cuban food production, as the island nation works to overhaul its economic and agricultural systems – both of which are in disrepair.

To a great extent, efforts to adopt sustainable farming methods in Cuba were born in the 1990s out of necessity. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba had become dependent on a monoculture of sugar production. Sugar, rum and cigars were shipped to the Soviet bloc in exchange for food, consumer goods and a variety of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The end of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s led to the almost-immediate collapse of Cuba’s economy, leading to what was euphemistically called “the Special Period,” a time of extreme austerity in which food, gasoline and other necessities became scarce. The country still imports the vast majority of the food it consumes.

“In the ’90s, the USSR collapsed and the so-called Special Period began,” said Dr. Lourdes Valdes, the General Director of the Food Industry Research Institute of Cuba (or IIIA, the abbreviation in Spanish).” We didn’t have milk for our kids or meat. Basically, we had nothing. We had to think what we were going to do because we just couldn’t starve.”

Without access to chemical fertilizers or pesticides, Cuban agronomists like Funes-Monzote began experimenting with sustainable farming. In the dry hills of Caimito, Funes-Monzote uses energy efficient techniques to conserve water on his 8-hectare farm, the equivalent of about 20 acres. As the government eased restrictions on private ownership and management of farmland, Funes-Monzote purchased a farmhouse in 2011, though the land itself continues to be owned by the octogenarian farmer who once worked the land. Funes-Monzote rebuilt the house, creating channels throughout the 200-square-meter roof of his home to store 300,000 liters of rainwater annually.

Next, Funes-Monzote set about building 46-foot-deep stone well, which serves, in many ways, as a metaphor for both the challenges and optimism that define his farming venture. Lacking mechanical equipment, Funes-Mozote, his friends and some helpers began digging with spades and shovels. Within weeks, he was abandoned by most of his helpers, who thought he was crazy to think he would be able to dig through the rock and find water. Only Juan Machado, known as Machadito, a local farmer and well-digger, believed they could succeed. After seven months, Funes-Monzote and Machadito finally found water and completed the well.

The well, designed as a vertical reservoir, supplies groundwater to the farmhouse and fields. La Finca Marta uses a German-made water pump powered by a solar panel. Funes-Monzote has also built a biodigester that uses animal waste from the farm’s herd of 12 cows to produce both electricity and fertilizer. A mixture of water, manure and urine are fed into the biodigester; the trapped methane gas fuels the kitchen stove – at the same time reducing methane emissions into the atmosphere. The remaining solids from the methane are used to fertilize crops and forage fields.

“The idea is to close the nutrient and energy cycles in the farm in order to produce enough energy to run the farm and to produce enough nutrients in order to fertilize our crops,” explained Funes-Monzote. The farm’s systems have allowed La Finca Marta to produce at least 30 varieties of vegetables, including tomatoes, celery, radishes, arugula and zucchini, many of which are hard to find in Cuba. The farm also produces honey, fruit trees and mango products. Most of the vegetables and herbs sell for one-half of one Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), about 50 cents, or two CUCs for 1.5 pounds of vegetables.

La Finca Marta supplies 16 paladares, or privately owned restaurants, including La Guarida, Havana’s oldest and most famous paladar. Twice a week, Funes-Monzote drives his produce to Havana in a 1985 Soviet Lada, a twice-weekly excursion to the city where his wife Claudia and two teenage sons live. The family spends the weekends on the farm, while Funes-Monzote commutes back-and-forth.

One of the farm’s customers is Magaly Rodriguez, a private caterer who prepares meals for a wide range of customers, including several foreign embassies. “I’ve been buying from Fernando since many years ago,” said Rodriguez, mentioning the purple lettuce she can find only at La Finca Marta.

Funes-Monzote said he was on schedule to meet his five-year profit plan. Funes-Monzote said he had spent at least 12,000 CUCs – the equivalent of about $12,000 – this past year, which doesn’t include substantial amounts of startup capital used to build his home and farm infrastructure. But his earnings over the last two years, he said, are enough to pay his workers’ salaries, as well as the operational costs of the farm. Funes-Monzote pays his full-time laborers about 80 Cuban Pesos per day, about $3, and provides meals. That is more than twice what workers make on nearby farms.  In the coming year, he expects his operations to recover his initial investments and infrastructure costs.

Funes-Monzote’s biggest challenge, and a key idea energizing his venture, is to get neighboring farmers to adopt his ideas and to transform “local, economic, ecological and social environments.” Cuban agriculture remains in dire straits; according to Valdes of the Food Industry Research Institute, the country still imports as much as 90 percent of what Cuban’s eat. Corn and chicken come from the United States; food is one of the few industries exempted from the restrictions of the U.S. embargo. Peas come from Spain. “The income from tourism and biotechnology are spent on two main things,” explained Valdes. “One is oil and the other is food.”

Although land reforms under President Raul Castro have worked to place idle state land in the hands of farmers, the agricultural sector remains largely unproductive. By the end of 2012, 3.7 million acres of idle state land had been distributed in so-called “usufruct,” a legal framework that allows farmers rights to what they produce, while ownership remains in state hands, according to Dr. Carmelo Mesa-Lago in “Institutional Changes of Cuba’s Economic-Social Reforms,” a 2014 report from the Brookings Institution.

The problem, said Funes-Monzote, is that the government has historically placed strict limits on what Cuban farms – whether held in usufruct, cooperatives or by private owners – can import, so they have been reliant on the state for fertilizer and pesticide. While the remedy for Cuba’s highly unproductive food system is clear to him, turning theory into practice is a challenge even for Funes-Monzote, who has studied and promoted sustainable agriculture for 20 years.

“We have learned a lot because we had to adjust and to understand how to combine scientific knowledge” with the reality he found on the ground, said Funes-Monzote, who estimated that only about 30 percent of what he studied as an agronomist was applicable on his farm.

Despite the evidence of neatly cultivated rows of diverse, healthy crops on La Finca Marta, neighboring farmers hesitate to renounce traditional farming habits in favor of the natural, but more time-intensive, techniques of agroecology. La Finca Marta is surrounded by failed farming experiments. One neighboring farmer decided to raise bulls despite Funes-Monzote’s advice that he grow vegetable crops; the farmer’s expenses exceeded the sale price of his bulls. Another neighbor burnt excess vegetation in order to control an infestation of marabou, a highly invasive root that has taken over much of Cuba’s arable land, rather than pulling it out by hand, as Funes-Monzote’s team has painstakingly done with its 10,000 marabou weeds. The farmer’s periodic burning of vegetation not only spurred the vegetation to grow even more but also damaged the land.

Severe weather is another problem. “Take Sandy,” said the diplomat and sociologist Dr. Carlos Alzuguray, referring to the 2012 hurricane. “Sandy hit Santiago de Cuba and destroyed it and then went up the East Coast and created havoc all along the East Coast.”

Even with the instability of weather conditions, one thing is clear to Marc Frank, author of Cuban Revelations and a journalist for Reuters: “Agriculture – it’s all gonna be private. All agriculture in the future will be private under market mechanisms. End of story. Without any question.”

As optimism builds for friendlier relations between Cuba and the U.S., a danger greater than hurricanes looms over Funes-Monzote’s plans for reforming Cuban agriculture. Improved relations and the lifting of the current U.S. embargo may mean another influx of fertilizers and pesticides into Cuba and a renewed push for industrial agriculture.