How Cuba’s Women Farmers Kept Everyone Fed

“I wake up early, I spend all day on the farm, working hard, managing the workers, planting, harvesting, selling, teaching—I do all of this out of love.”
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In Cuba, women were an integral part of revolutionizing the way food was grown and distributed in the country.

Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Cuba’s former agricultural system—large-scale, mechanized, and “modern”—relied on a steady flow of resources from the Soviet Union. Before 1989, the Soviet Union sent vast amounts of agricultural supplies, including petroleum, pesticides, fertilizers, and livestock vaccinations, to fuel Cuban production of cash crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, and bananas. The Cuban government prioritized the export of cash crop products and imported 80 percent of what the country consumed: rice, beans, grains, and vegetables. To the north, the United States enforced el bloqueo, an economic blockade against Cuba first established in 1960, prohibiting the flow of goods, including food and medicine, to and from the socialist island. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, severing the supply of food and farming supplies, Cuba woke up to a major economic crisis. Without food imports to stock the grocery store shelves, how would Cuba feed 11 million people? How would Cubans till the soil without diesel to run the tractors? How could farmers stimulate yields without synthetic fertilizers? Agricultural production plummeted dramatically. State farms and factories shut down. Livestock perished. Precious cash crops rotted in the fields and, as a result, revenue from exports crashed.

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Fidel Castro, the ruling leader of the communist state, referred to the economic crisis as El Período Especial, or the Special Period During the Time of Peace. He urged the Cuban population to work resourcefully with the meager supplies they had. Remarkably, people did just that: they began to grow vegetables and herbs in pots and containers on rooftops, to plant avocado and mango pits in their backyards, and to raise smaller, more efficient meat sources such as rabbits and guinea pigs. The Cuban state responded to the domestic food crisis by once again giving precedence to food crops over luxury cash crops like sugar cane and coffee. Without heavy-duty machinery to plough the soil, the state needed a younger generation of the guajiros, peasant farmers, to till the land using the buey, long-horned oxen, so it created government schools to teach these older techniques.

From 1989 to 1994, alternative agriculture was transformed from fringe ideology to reality in Cuba. The Cuban government called upon the country’s academics, researchers, and sustainable agriculture technicians to provide expertise on local, organic, and resourceful methods of growing food, not only in rural locations, but also within marginal spaces in towns and cities. By the late 1990s—because of the efforts of state policy and, more importantly, the cumulative work of old and new farmers alike—the rate of food production gradually climbed again, the population’s nutritional intake improved, and the food crisis abated.

Women like Edith, who created an urban farm from scratch, were an integral part of revolutionizing the way food was grown and distributed in the country.

I hailed a taxi from a street corner in Sancti Spíritus. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” groaned the driver, pulling back on the leather reins, slowing his engine: a chestnut-colored horse pulling a passenger cart rigged up with two wooden benches and a yellow plastic roof. After the Soviet collapse and the oil crisis that ensued, horse taxis became an increasingly common mode of accessible transportation: cheaper to fuel and maintain than cars, with the added benefit of producing organic waste. A folded rice sack hung beneath the horse’s rump, catching the manure before it fell on the streets. Twice a day, the driver unloaded his horse’s waste at various composting collection sites set up in Sancti Spíritus. As I boarded the passenger cart from the back, a romantic bachata song played on the radio. The driver flicked the reins and the cart bounced along the street, the sound of the hoofbeats clomping rhythmically to the music.

Only 10 minutes away from the main square, the driver murmured to his mount and rolled to a halt beside an urban farm bordered by apartment buildings. The large sign out front read Linda Flor, Beautiful Flower, and the farmer, a woman named Edith, waited by the roadside, waving warmly at me. Edith’s friends called her La Chiquita, the small one, because she barely reached 5 feet. The 50-year-old farmer wore her stylish, skin-tight outfit with black rubber boots and a pair of miniature cloth work gloves that enclosed her small hands. Aside from farming, she later confessed, she loved dancing. She seemed to be dressed to do both at once: weed, prune, plant, and shake her hips to bachata, salsa, meringue, and rumba. I leaned down into her warmth; she grabbed my shoulders and kissed both my cheeks in greeting. “Bienvenido, mi vida, welcome,” she said, using the Cuban term of endearment, “my life.” Wedged between the cotton-candy-colored residential buildings, Edith’s urban farm spanned two acres and was packed with long, concrete, raised beds where she grew a combination of flowers, vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants. She specialized in propagating and experimenting with growing flowers. “They feed my soul!” she sang passionately. “Nutrition isn’t only about feeding the stomach, it’s about feeding the soul.” Fifty  kinds of flowers cascaded over the edges of the beds: pink hibiscus, big-headed sunflowers, various shades of roses and carnations. The farm contrasted sharply with the cubic, concrete apartment buildings, built in the uniform Soviet architecture, but made Cuban with the choice of canary yellow, turquoise, and lime-green paint. Residents hung their laundry on the balconies to dry in the hot sun and gazed down at Edith’s long beds of food and flowers.

“Can you believe that, over twenty years ago, this farm was a garbage dump?” asked Edith. “We started the farm from nada, nothing. There wasn’t even an inch of soil to grow from! People used to deposit and burn their garbage on this piece of land. Today they ask me, ‘How did you ever think it would be possible to transform garbage into food and flowers?’” During the 1980s, Edith lectured as a biology teacher at a high school in Sancti Spíritus. She remembered the harsh impact of the Soviet crash in 1989: the bare shelves at the food markets, the exhausting wait times at the food ration stores, and the urban population’s frenzied search for the minimum basics, such as vegetables and grains. Edith felt as though they were living through a war: enduring long power outages, or waiting for hours on the street corners just to catch a bus or taxi. She grew accustomed to going without meat, milk, and eggs as the large-scale state farms dropped off in production, some closing altogether. The government cut back on the ration system. People innovated, frying up root vegetables instead of pork and grinding split peas to add to the limited amount of coffee that was available. During the Special Period, the average Cuban adult lost from 10 to 30 pounds. In the 1990s, in response to the nutritional crisis, the Cuban government invited Edith and teachers from across the country to participate in a series of workshops on food production. “At those workshops, I fell in love with farming,” Edith gushed. “I began volunteering on a part-time basis at a government vegetable farm in Sancti Spíritus. There, I learned the art of seed saving and seed propagation techniques. I loved the challenge of selecting the hardiest vegetable seeds, and breeding different flower varieties.”

“I do all of this out of love for my work. My work is my life.”

By 1994, Cuba’s minister of agriculture, Raúl Castro, recognized the potential for institutionalizing food production in cities across the country. During the Special Period, the state struggled to produce high volumes of food on the former state farms and plantations, and to cover the fuel costs of transporting products to the cities. As a solution to the food crisis, Castro founded the country’s urban agriculture program, enabling Cubans to identify empty, marginalized spaces in their towns and cities that could be transformed into organopónicos, or urban farms. Castro aspired to convert enough urban land to provide every city resident with 5 square meters of farmland, which would yield, every day, 300 grams of vegetables. Cubans from different professional backgrounds, including teachers, lawyers, and nurses, became farmers overnight and began to grow root vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, herbs, medicinal plants, animal feeds, and to produce meat, eggs, milk, and honey. The urban farms included small kiosks where farmers could sell their products, heavily subsidized by the government, to people living in their neighborhoods.

In Sancti Spíritus, Edith walked through the neighborhoods, searching for abandoned land. “Somehow,” she said, shaking her head in wonder, “somehow I dreamed that I could, one day, turn an area of waste and neglect into this!” After receiving approval from the Cuban government, Edith enlisted the support of her father, a veteran rebel fighter who fought in the revolution, and a small team of retired Cuban men. “They were the only ones willing to help me,” she recalled. “Everyone else, including my son and daughter, thought I was crazy. ‘Ah Mami,’ they said to me, ‘you’re going to hurt yourself doing all of that heavy work. Look at your hands, look at your hair! Look at what you’re putting yourself through!’ But I was determined to do the work.” The biology teacher realized that she would have to build from the ground up and make her own organic soil. She knocked on every door of the residential buildings surrounding the land to recruit support from her neighbors. Inspired by Edith’s resolve to grow food in their neighborhood, people gave her their organic waste, including kitchen scraps, and paper and cardboard products. At the manure composting centers in Sancti Spíritus, she collected bags of horse manure from the taxi drivers. She layered massive heaps of the materials. Slowly, microorganisms broke down the organic material, turning the waste into black, nutrient-rich humus. She spread the compost on the soil in the beds, and watched seedlings push their green heads through the soil and tight buds unfurl themselves with brilliant color. Linda Flor became increasingly productive. Her employees pushed food and flower carts throughout the city, selling directly to the public, as well as through the street kiosk. She hired more of her retired neighbors to help on the farm. By 1999, Edith and other urban farmers in Sancti Spíritus were producing around fifty metric tons of vegetables and fruits for the local population, exceeding by far Castro’s goal of three hundred grams of vegetables, daily, for every person in the city.

The majority of urban farmers in the city were male, but Edith’s passion for food, and her strong work ethic, earned her respect amongst her colleagues. “Sometimes I’ve had to work against the current of thought that a woman does not belong in agriculture, or in the leadership of agriculture,” Edith admitted. “But I’ve continued to struggle and work against that mentality. I make decisions and lead by example. I believe that I am seen—and appreciated—by my society, and even my government.” After her fifth year farming at Linda Flor, Edith received an official visit from representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture. She explained to officials how she worked with the community to collect their waste for composting and showed them the small workspace where she selected, saved, and propagated seeds. Impressed by her ingenuity and resourcefulness, the ministry granted her an extra acre of land adjoining her current plot. In 2004, Edith attended a workshop organized by a local cultural and environmental foundation in Sancti Spíritus. The workshop focused on applying permaculture, a sustainably designed system, to Cuba’s cities, farms, and urban farms. She fell in love with the theories of minimizing waste, using local resources, promoting diversity, and increasing efficiency. Edith began lending her teaching skills to the local organization, volunteering to share information with Cubans living in both rural and other urban areas. Hundreds of students from Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Canada, the UK, France, and Sweden traveled to Sancti Spíritus to tour through Edith’s stunning farm and learn from her organic composting techniques. “I used to feel so confined by teaching in a classroom. But teaching outside on my farm, I feel more alive and my students feel more alive. I think they are more attuned to listen, learn, and absorb information,” said Edith thoughtfully. “It’s true that a garden is also a classroom. I feel very blessed to be a Cuban woman, a farmer, and a teacher. I wake up early, I spend all day on the farm, working hard, managing the workers, planting, harvesting, selling, teaching—I do all of this out of love for my work. My work is my life.”

This edited excerpt is from the book Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism and the Fight to Feed the World by Trina Moyles with photographs by KJ Dakin, copyright 2018. Reprinted by permission of University of Regina Press

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