Successful Farming Goes to Cuba
Fernando Fumes Monzote is starting his own Cuban revolution – in the soil.
As an academic now turned farmer, Monzote (shown at left) is not interested in a revolution such as the one that overthrew the Cuban government in 1959. He’s interested in changing how this island country farms and how it can sustain its people with food and a life on the land. “I am here today as a farmer, after 20 years in the academic sector,” he says.
Monzote shared his farm with Successful Farming magazine and a touring delegation, including agricultural companies, commodity association members, and government officials from the state of Iowa. He wants to start a relationship and to expand trade between Cuba and the U.S.
Why did a university scientist turn to farming? Monzote had a passion to build this part of the country into an agricultural territory, and he wanted to do it with his own hands.
The 11 million Cubans (among them 1 million farmers) cannot make a living at farming, so they are drawn to other sectors of the economy, Monzote says, such as tourism.
“We need farmers. We need more farmers. To lose farmers is to lose culture,” he says.
His mission was to create a project farm, one that would use the available resources – sun, wind, soil, livestock, and biomass – to learn “how to create food but not damage the environment.” He wanted to apply what he learned and taught at the University of Havana.
He began by clearing 3 hectares (about 8 acres) of land. It was overgrown with brush after decades of neglect.
His next task was to dig a well, by hand – his very own hands. He and a friend dug the 50-foot well, and it took seven months. His neighbors thought he was “loco.” He kept at it, though. Despite the rough-shorn hands and tired back, his spirit wasn’t broken, and they finally hit water.
Land in Cuba
Owning farmland, or any land, is rare in Cuba. As a socialist country (the Russians left Cuba upon the breakup of the former Soviet Union), most land is owned by the state. Farmers can get a 10-year lease to work the land, and they can renew the lease. The same is true for homes. People don’t own the land, but they can own title to the home that sits on the land.
The U.S. has had an embargo on trade with Cuba since the 1960s. Canada, Europe, and Brazil have had trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba for a long time. In late 2014, the U.S. reestablished diplomatic relations, reopening an embassy in Havana in late 2015. Agricultural trade is very limited – and only with cash in advance. There is no credit.
There are building efforts to get the U.S. embargo lifted, which would take an act of Congress; President Obama can’t do that on his own.
Cuba is now opening its doors to the U.S., and commercial airlines are lining up to begin regular flights there. That bodes well for Americans who want to tour Old Havana. It doesn’t open up the doors of agricultural trade just yet, however.
Monzote, who speaks English, is an ambassador in his own way. He travels the globe talking about his farm, which grows vegetables, produces honey, and raises livestock. He grows more than 60 varieties of vegetables, which he harvests every Tuesday and Friday. A recent day’s harvest of lettuce, dill, chicory, carrots, and parsley was delivered to restaurants.
Three years ago, a neighbor asked to store four beehives on Monzote’s farm. After the hives were removed, Monzote decided to start his own bee colony. It now includes 75 hives and more than 2 million bees that generate honey.
The farm is a clean and organized place, humming with activity. Monzote says hard work has brought the project this far. He’s proud that he supports 16 employees at fair wages.
He looks forward to continued improvements to the farm, the operation, and the sustainability of this place he calls Finca Marta.
The farm is named after his mother, his inspiration. Monzote’s mother, also a scientist, studied livestock at the University of Havana. She passed away in 2007 while Monzote was converting this scrub land into a diverse and sustainable farm.
Speaking of the opportunities ahead as America starts to reopen trade, he says, “We are looking at the future of our country.”
Fidel the Farmer?
Fidel Castro is an almost mythical name in Cuban history. Castro, 89, who helped lead the country’s revolution in 1959, governed as prime minister and president, giving up the presidency in 2008 to his brother, Raul.
Raul Castro has indicated he will give up the title in 2018.
Despite the Internet rumors, Fidel Castro is still living. He grew up on a farm in Cuba and is still farming at his home, according to several people living in Cuba. Another brother, Ramon, died in February at age 91.
Cuba is clearly known for Castro, cigars, and cars still stuck in a time capsule of the 1950s and 1960s. Here are some other facts:
- Cuba has been a big importer of agricultural products. The U.S. has typically been a large supplier, but the U.S. share of imported goods has dropped dramatically over the past several years.
- The share of products was as high as 42% in fiscal year 2009, according to USDA.
- Last year, imports accounted for 74% of Cuban food. The key imports are wheat, corn, poultry, rice, and dairy.