Friday, June 3, 2011

Cuba - A Model for Sustainable Urban Agriculture?

I'd read that there was a vibrant urban agricultural scene in Havana, Cuba but had no idea about it's origins or the extent of it's success. Viewing this video, I couldn't help but wonder whether or not this Caribbean city could serve as a model for other urban centers around the world that are interested in becoming more self-sufficient.

I try not to sound too political on this blog but it always irks me when short-sighted public figures (whom I'd never want to share a meal with) are quick to dismiss urban agriculture as some sort of crunchy granola elitist pipe dream. Maybe it's because they've never had to consider where their next meal would come from (a luxury most of us in this country are granted) or they have preconceived notions of farming as a occupation for the lowly. Let's just hope these people never have to endure a widespread food shortage. (I wouldn't want them to raid my veggie garden.) One thing's for sure - As our world population continues to grow, we'll have to find new more efficient ways of producing food in the limited space that we have.

Anyway, what was it that Plato once said? Necessity is the mother of invention. The veggie plots featured in this video and the systems established by the Havana growers are pretty inspiring. Could this model be replicated in your hometown?


  1. Absolutely amazing!! I'm sure that the big corporations, especially Monsanto would fight this type of food production here.

    That public figure is not the brightest bulb to say the least!

  2. I wonder how much of a pipe dream it is. Cuba was forced into it to survive. I'm sure we would do it again if also forced into it. In WWII we were forced into it, but when the war was over, so were the victory gardens. In fact that ushered in the era of pre-prepared foods. An anti gardening movement so to speak. Could we sustain a movement where vegetable gardening isn't just a fad? I doubt it. Too many people just hate to garden or aren't willing to put in the time for it. Monetarily their time is better spent elsewhere. But the urban farms in Cuba are just that. Farms. They aren't gardens. We might be able to support farms as open space over the long term. Lexington does that. They have a lot of open space and some is designated as farm land. Wilson's Farm uses land owned by Lexington (I don't know the arrangement, but I'm assuming it is leased out). That is a valuable resource to the town. It is a much loved institution. Recently Busa Farm (also in Lexington, right on the Arlington border) sold its land to Lexington. The discussion about what to do with it has been raging. It looks like the majority of the land will end up as a community farm. Lexington is an affluent town. I haven't a clue how they can afford the open space they keep in their town. Most towns build it over. Their goal I've been told is to have 50% of their land as open space.

    Now farms as open space are elitist if looked at in a certain way. The land is worth a lot and it would be cheaper to put it to other uses (like housing). The vegetables in them are typically more expensive than at the supermarkets. So those struggling can't afford them. In Cuba it is the other way around. But their economy is different. Though it will be interesting to see what happens with Detroit a city where the land isn't worth anything.

    I find the thought of vegetable gardens elitist laughable though. It is the opposite. I used to live in Winchester a very upscale town. Rarely anyone had vegetable gardens except when the fad hit. There were a few of us die hard gardeners, but very few. Here in East Arlington we have a very mixed community, both white and blue collar. Some cheaper housing and some more expensive. On my street, which has five houses, there is one other gardener, and Vera down the street used to have one, but she says she is too old to do it anymore. The two streets next to me in the same length of road has two houses where the whole back yards are veggied over. Unlike my back yard which has some grass they have nothing but food production. Wally behind me has a nice sized veggie garden and has been gardening for years. I see a few fad gardens (it is amazing that I can recognize them but I can), that were put in over the last few years. So massive amounts of food production in a more blue collar area.

  3. Robin - I agree. Maybe we should force the large corporations to adapt. I believe in consumer power!

    Daphne - I love it. That's probably one of the best comments I've had. I never knew that Wilson Farms leased its land from the town of Lexington. I always thought when I went there = "How are they able to own such prime piece of land." I guess they don't! Sure the more affluent cities may not be as drawn to urban agriculture but I'm sure there are plenty of other less affluent ones where this model might work like Baltimore, Flint, Philadelphia, Detroit, parts of Oakland and locally - places like Lawrence and Holyoke, MA to name a few. Detroit is definitely an interesting case in that the population is shrinking at a rapid pace and there are plenty of abandoned lots. I think the mayor had the right idea - putting this land to use agriculturally would not only beautify this otherwise trash and weed infested space, but also unite the community, potentially strengthen the local economy, provide fresh veggies in a virtual food desert, attract a new breed urban population and ultimately attract more businesses to set up shop. The lesson to be learned I think is that a quick and easy fix to the problems faced by a city like Detroit (like a battery plant) is not always the best solution.

  4. Making sure everyone has enough to eat is a noble agenda. Some grow plants for fun, very much a recreation. Some even resort to rooftop gardening... it doesn't matter, as long as we keep growing plants, the Earth will smile.

  5. The statistics about the UK at the end were stark. Given the recent experience of the Icelandic ash cloud and the German ecoli outbreak many people are becoming acutely aware of how vulnerable our food supply, courtesy of Teso and Walmart, is.

    We in the UK went for family worked 'allotments' rather than collectively owned community gardens. (This dates back to the days of urban unemployment when the disposessed country dwellers were thrown off the land but was buoyed up by WW1 and WW2 food scarcities.) Now any new sites always include community owned area where anyone can chip in (and presumably benefit from the produce?).

    We allotmenteers have been described as 'an elite' by those wanting to remove our right to convert our effort and time (and skill) into wholesome food. Others suggest we are the privileged few - just because they have sold off many urban allotment sites to the developers and now, as a result, there is a long waiting list.
    There is little recognition of the investment allotment holders make to make a go of it. Instead the local authorites (who own the land) are now looking to see how they can maximise their return to cover the cuts central government is making on their budgets.

    Say, you've got me thinking...

  6. It really must come from necessity to become widely accepted. That was the case in this situation and I don't think it could happen any other way - at least not on a broad scale that was integrated into an urban area. I think a day will come when that is indeed will be the case. Until then, I will continue to do my part to keep the skills alive and to share them with those that ARE interested so that when it IS needed - it will be possible. And where there ARE urban community gardens it would be wise of us to advocate for them and be involved in their success.

  7. The idea of urban farms in Cuba come from the inability of the Cuban government to produce food from the idealistic but failed idea of cooperatives. The idea that you can turn urban land to grow vegetables to feed people is not elitist but naive. What are we do to for meat? Have cows, chickens in our back yards? Oh wait, people in Cuba do raise pigs in their bathtub, We did! What the world needs is not more urban farms but less people. There's nothing to admire about urban farms in Cuba, it's a failed Communist attempt to turn everyone into farmers, because that's about all a centralized-outdated-failed economy can do.

  8. Mal's Allotment - Thanks for the comment. Very informative!

    kitsapFG - I totally agree.

    Yaalaliberta - I see your point to a certain expect. But I don't think many people are arguing that urban farms will one day replace conventional ones. I do however think that they have the potential to relieve some of the agricultural pressures we will face. The amount of energy that is required to grow, process and transport a bag of salad from California to Massachusetts is unbelievably huge. This practice is surely unsustainable and we will have to find ways to shorten the distances between salad farm and dinner plate.

    Obviously it's impractical to raise cows and pigs in an urban setting and I pray that we will never see an animal being raised on a highrise farm. I can foresee western countries one day having to face that reality that we cannot commune meat at every meal whether we like it or not.

    One thing I'm in complete agreement with you one is that over-population is the major issue here.