Teacher studies agriculture in Cuba

(Created: Sunday, December 31, 2006 11:11 AM EST)

Steve Tanguay is an award-winning seventh-grade teacher at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast who leads a district-wide garden and greenhouse program with a strong emphasis on sustainability. Indeed, the purpose of the program, a formal statement at the school website reads, is “to grow empowered academically successful young people who integrate sustainability into their lives by producing and learning to satisfy their needs locally.”

Two delegation members inspect raised beds in one of Havana’s many “orgonoponicios,” the community gardens found in almost every vacant lot. Old building material like blown-down roofing tiles and, seen here, broken concrete sidewalk pavement, is used almost exclusively to create the bed. The main crop is bok choi. On the end of the rows is calendula, a variety of marigold used to repel pests.
Over the past half-dozen years since he helped start it up, educators have come to view the popular school program as an important model for Maine and for the nation. At Thanksgiving, Tanguay’s interests took him to Cuba where, he reports, “People are carrying out what’s considered the largest sustainable agricultural experiment in the world.”

The association of Cuba and revolution is popularly seen as the overthrow culminating on New Year’s Day 1959 of a brutal dictator by a small guerilla army led by Fidel Castro. But following its stunning military success over the American-supported Fulgencio Batista, the work of the revolution for nearly the half-century since has involved seeking to feed and educate its population.

Because of military threat and what remain active economic sanctions imposed by the United States, Cuba moved into the Soviet orbit throughout the remainder of the Cold War. After an initial stab at diversifying its agriculture with locally produced food crops to feed a burgeoning population, Cuba settled back into a monoculture economy based on sugar cane. The Soviet Union became the primary purchaser. In exchange, Cubans received military supplies, petroleum and much of their food.

All that changed after 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Virtually overnight, Cuba’s trade exports declined by 90 percent. “Fidel asked everyone to tighten their belts,” says Tanguay, falling into the relaxed Cuban habit of calling people by their first names. “Fidel said times were going to be tough.”

And they were. Within a year or two, Cubans, who previously had been some of the best nourished people in the hemisphere, saw their 2,900-calorie average daily intake of food energy plummet by more than a third. As a result, the typical Cuban lost about 20 percent of his or her body weight.

Cuba was not entirely unprepared. The country had already been going through some major reforms in the 1980s during a period that has come to be called “the period of making mistakes.” Those mistakes that were recognized then included aspects of how food was distributed and marketed.

During the “special period” that has followed, Cuba has embarked on what it numbers as its third agrarian reform program since Castro came to power. That program has at its core local sustainability and adoption of incentives to involve more of the population in taking direct responsibility for feeding itself.

Troy Howard Middle School teacher Steve Tanguay, left, shares expertise with one of Cuba’s new breed of agricultural workers, a specialist in the management of a variety of red worm used to produce compost. The country is putting particular emphasis on building up the health of its soils. Last year, Cuba produced some 90 million tons of worm casings as a valuable soil amendment.
With 80 percent of Cuba’s approximately 11 million citizens now living in built-up areas, agrarian reform has come directly to the cities and towns. “Everywhere you look, people are trying to grow something,” says Tanguay, who during a 12-day period traveled around Havana and some 800 miles out into the country with fellow members of an international “sustainable agricultural delegation.” The group included American, Australian and South African agronomists, entomologists and other researchers, a farmer from Oregon, Texas’s biggest organic food producer, even an American government food policy expert.

Today, fully 320,000 of Cuba’s approximately one million agricultural workers are employed in cities and towns. Nearly 200,000 acres of urban open space has been turned over for agricultural production. Community garden centers known as “organoponicios” are found everywhere there is even a modest amount of open space, be it a former parking lot, a vacant industrial site or land specially reserved alongside a housing project. The delegation made in-depth visits to some three dozen of these organoponicios, talked freely with the workers and, according to Tanguay, came away with the unqualified impression everybody was “very, very proud of what they were doing.”

Elsewhere in the urban areas, the visitors noted a surprising number of more modest efforts to grow food. “You’ll see even a 4-by-4 space next to a building entrance and they’ll be some food crop growing in it,” says Tanguay. “Or, up on a rooftop, you’ll see a couple of mango trees growing in large pots.”

The concept of city planning in Cuba is now intimately bound up in agrarian reform. Tanguay describes a three-dimensional scale model of Havana, the largest such construction in the world, in which every building in the city of 2.5 million is represented by a model made from cigar box stock. These days, all new housing and other building developments must include open space. Planners in Havana must submit models that can be placed on the proposed site in the cigar-box city so everyone can get a hands-on sense whether the project is appropriate.

An experience shared by people in some of America’s cities, the Cubans went through a period, particularly during the 1970s with Soviet-style apartment blocks, in which they built a lot of high-rise housing with no thought of providing green space nearby. The result in both countries was a sense of alienation among residents deprived of open space in which to meet and interact. The delegation’s hosts said there was a sharp increase in juvenile crime.

Now with green space for food crops shoehorned into every conceivable open area, the gardens have become popular areas for people to get together. Tanguay saw a man working on his car only yards from long rows of raised beds full of bok choi and other greens at one community garden. Elsewhere, he saw residents of the neighborhood sitting at folding tables playing dominoes. According to the Cuban authorities, juvenile crime has fallen off sharply.

Lest anyone think the importance of Cuba’s new urban gardens is primarily in their aesthetic and social values, Tanguay—whose school program makes him no stranger to just how much food can be grown in a small space using intensive labor (this past fall, THMS students harvested over 80 varieties of vegetables weighing in excess of two tons)—points out that last year Cuban gardeners grew 4.5 million tons of produce, nearly three pounds a day on average for every man, woman and child in the country.

Cuba’s generally sub-tropical climate means the sun can be too much of a good thing when it comes to gardening. Mesh fabric stretched over these beds helps keep a healthy crop of bok choi from wilting. For similar reasons, greenhouses are not used much the way they are in Maine. Rather, they amount to what Tanguay refers to as “shade houses.”
This has had a profound effect in a relatively short time on the health of Cubans. Actual average caloric intake has rebounded to higher than pre-1991 levels and some Cuban doctors are concerned obesity could become a problem some day.

The Cuban experiment has not merely boosted average daily intake to about 3,100 calories, it has produced a much higher quality of intake. Over the past 50 years in the United States, he says, the soil has tended to lose about half its former vitality with consequent negative effects on those who consume food grown in it.

Tanguay doesn’t believe this problem will be addressed in the United States until Americans get past a mindset of thinking of food as just another commodity and the cheaper the better. Vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients found in food grown in good soil are, he more than suspects, the reason why the new Cuban diet is more healthful.

A cultural shift in eating habits also plays a role in this shift. Whereas Cubans have long relied on a plentiful supply of many different kinds of fruit to round out a base diet heavy on the rice and beans, a big part of Cuba’s third agrarian reform program has been the introduction of greens and other vegetables.

Not that many years ago, Tanguay notes, few Cubans were particularly interested in salads. What are now popular varieties of vegetables like bok choi, the ubiquitous element in many Oriental stir fry recipes, were unknown and unwanted. The average per capita daily consumption of vegetables in Cuba has over the past 15 years grown from 7 grams to about 800 grams.

Further, Tanguay notes, with fuel imports now less than 8 percent of pre-1991 levels, virtually all this food is consumed within a short distance of where it is grown. “In less than 10 years, Cuba has moved away from a petroleum-based economy,” he says, adding by contrast the produce people in Maine purchase at the supermarket has traveled an average of 3,000 miles.

The energy-saving impetus to transport as little material as short a distance as possible extends to shucking and peeling produce in the field so what in the United States is commonly referred to as waste can be productively composted nearby rather than end up in a landfill or waste incinerator. Tanguay says the delegation was particularly surprised to find that oranges on display at markets and farm stands are usually piled up already neatly peeled with just a small orange polar cap at each end.

The largest such scale model of a city in the world, this three-dimensional creation at the Ministry of Planning in Havana shows Cuba’s capital city with every single building replicated in detail from cigar box stock. The waterfront to the left of the rotary plaza in the foreground is the specific area where in the19th century before the era of modern refrigeration schooners from Maine tied up to discharge blocks of ice and take on cargoes of sugar, molasses and rum.
Other efficiencies adopted by the Cubans include planting and harvesting according to real local demand and because rationed electricity makes refrigeration problematic resurrecting old-fashioned preservation techniques. The delegation spent an afternoon at a Havana television station visiting with a couple whose cooking show featuring canning techniques has become one of the nation’s most popular.

The Cubans didn’t set out to become organic farmers when they began their latest agrarian reform effort but for the most part that is what they have become. Sharp limitations on imported petroleum products meant sharp limitations on the pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers derived from those petroleum products. In fact, some of the Cuban agronomists the delegation met with were frank in admitting that given their druthers there are some instances in which they would prefer to have some limited use of chemicals. For instance, they said, Cuba’s generally subtropical climate can make it problematic to grow potatoes at sea level following strictly organic practices.

Although the program at Troy Howard Middle School is organic and Tanguay sees indisputable benefit in such practices, he acknowledges that even more important to the ultimate health of the consumer than organically grown produce is produce grown in good soil. The Cubans are taking both approaches, building tilth into what is generally a heavy red clay or “serpentine” soil with poor drainage, and reviving the complex of myriad microscopic life forms inhabiting the interstices between the mineral grains that makes soil truly live and healthy. On the other hand, Tanguay explains, organic practices have limited benefit if the soil used is essentially dead and the mineral grains merely serve as what amounts to an inert matrix for hydroponic cultivation.

Along the way to full realization of current reforms, the Cubans have borrowed from the past to rediscover what their forefathers knew. They’ve also studied and adapted what organic farmers elsewhere in the world have experimented with. Thus, some 7,000 specialists have joined the ranks of about 50,000 new agricultural workers, their job to act as advisors to local garden and farm programs in a ratio of about one for every 30 growers. A lot of the practices are cutting edge, even unproven, says Tanguay. Other practices are solidly proven and clearly getting good results. Everyday practices in the gardens and on the farms of today’s Cuba range from the mundane to what might seem bizarre.

These practices include raised bed cultivation in a 50-50 mix of soil and compost, no-till cultivation, vertical cultivation and harvesting, application of 2 inches of compost before a new crop is planted, crop rotation, companion planting, spraying with tobacco extract and lime, planting of marigolds and sunflowers and sorghum at the ends of the beds to repel pests, intercropping of radishes which are employed to remove harmful nematodes from the soil (after about 25 days, they’re pulled and burned), deliberate introduction of other nematodes into the soil which are beneficial, encouragement of parasitic wasps to go after pests, use of the established agent Bacilllus thuringensis (Bt) as well as other newly discovered biologicals, and magnetization of water lines.

Everywhere the delegation went, Tanguay reports, the Cuban people proved warm and welcoming hosts. “Everybody always seemed very free about discussing everything. They didn’t hold back in saying what they thought might be wrong, how things might be improved. There was a lot of open dialogue in the newspapers criticizing political and social issues. They can’t understand why we have an economic blockade against them. They can’t understand why we think a little nation of 11 million people is a threat to us.”

What did he bring back from Cuba? “It was really inspiring to say the least to see how the Cuban people’s gardens have been integrated into all their neighborhoods, really how these gardens have become the centers of their communities. The other inspiring thing is to see how fast they’ve gotten off an oil-based economy. They’ve taken an uncharted course and they’ve really done it in only about 10 years.

“Everything was very different from what I’d heard.”

Copyright © 2007 MaineCoastNOW.com