HAVANA – Putting lettuce on the table in Cuba during the summer is often a dream that can only come true by visiting urban vegetable gardens, the popular “organoponics,” a network of more than 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of land plus points of sale that supply tons of greens, fruits and herbs to consumers every year.
For several years urban agriculture has helped make up for the chronic lack of rural crops that has forced Cuba to depend on immense quantities of imported food.
“The national program of urban agriculture has had a lot of impact across the country, not only in guaranteeing the food supply, but also as a significant way to improve people’s agrarian, food and environmental culture,” the director of urban agriculture at the Institute of Basic Research in Tropical Agriculture, or Inivat, Nelso Companioni, said.
Some 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) are planted with vegetables for an average annual output of some 10 kilos per square meter (2 pounds per square foot), the executive said.
Looking back on the project, he recalled that it started in 1987, but that it really got going in 1994 during the “Special Period” of economic crisis after the Eastern Bloc broke up and Cuba lost its main economic allies.
At present close to 80 percent of leaf vegetables in the Cuban diet are produced this way, which, according to its promoters, seeks the year-long “stabilizing” of some 56 varieties of crops now being grown organically without the use of chemical fertilizers.
But besides supplying fresh vegetables and widening the scope of culinary culture, the movement has spawned more than 1,000 small canned-food industries and has become a “large and secure” source of jobs that currently employs more than 380,000 people on the island, including more than 10,000 professionals, Companioni said.
This system, which also includes a suburban agricultural program, fits in perfectly with the reform plan being promoted by the government of Gen. Raul Castro with the aim of “modernizing” the island’s economic model.
The plan includes the use but not the ownership of idle lands as one of the chief projects for reviving the nation’s agriculture.
The authorities consider increasing food production in Cuba a matter of “national security,” because in recent years more than $1.5 billion have been spent on food imports, most of which could have been produced on the island.
In Havana, where more than 1,000 points of sale have been set up, consumers can also buy certain tropical fruits like guava, lemons, plantains and avocados, and even the more exotic apricots and passion fruit.
But those in charge of these centers admit there is less supply than demand, basically due to the poor quality of the seeds and the scarcity of organic material for fertilizing the land.
Nonetheless, they say that they “never lose customers” and at one place the administrator, Pablo Frias, said that in summer they offer between 14 and 18 kinds of produce, including green beans, cilantro, parsley, celery and basil.
By planting 28 crops in the flowerbeds that are lined up to make a hectare (2 1/2 acres) of land, a permanent harvest of all varieties is assured with a total of 29,000 square meters (310,000 square feet) under cultivation.
Ernesto, a young college student, summed up the advantages of the “organoponic” garden he visits the most: “It’s close to my house, the products are affordable and its produce can be found in very few farmers’ markets.”
Natacha, another local resident, said she prefers to buy vegetables here “and if it’s lettuce, so much the better, because it tastes better and it’s fresh.”