Like many aspects of Cuban society and culture, resource scarcity is a driving factor for Cuba’s unique and innovative approaches to agriculture.
fernando funes
Fernando Funes speaks to a group of visitors at Finca Marta. Photo courtesy of Startup Cuba.

Sustainable agriculture is a hot topic in Cuba. So much so that agro-tourism has blossomed into a subset of Cuba’s burgeoning eco-tourism sector. Outside of Havana, the fertile Viñales valley is a popular agricultural area where tourists come to see traditional farming practices. Though farming in Cuba is certainly no easy feat. Harsh policies —like the penalty of life in prison for butchering a cow, and the percentages of crops and dairy that must be returned to the government for central distribution— certainly cast a dark shadow on Cuban agriculture, this article focuses on Finca Marta, a shining example of what successful agriculture can look like in Cuba.

Like many aspects of Cuban society and culture, resource scarcity is a driving factor for Cuba’s unique and innovative approaches to agriculture. Most prominently, Cuba is known for its focus on organic, urban, and sustainable farming. To understand Cuba’s agricultural systems today, we have to go back to see how we got here in the first place. The history of agriculture in Cuba is one that is based on monoculture, extraction, and revolutionary culture of volunteerism. This article will mostly focus on post-revolution Cuba beginning around 1959, though it is important to highlight Cuba’s history with the exploitation of indigenous populations, the slave trade, and the use of slave labor on plantations starting in the 16th century. 

Cuba is an incredibly fertile island with amazing natural resources. To this day nearly one-third of the land is still used for agriculture.

finca marta
Photo courtesy of Startup Cuba

Before the 1959 Cuban revolution, agriculture in Cuba was largely dominated by imperialist forces and production for export on the global market, first by the Spanish and the French, and then by U.S. interests at the turn of the 20th century. After the 1959 revolution, this all changed with the nationalization of farmland and a strong focus on agriculture’s role in Cuba’s export strategy and its GDP. One of the ways that the Soviet Union subsidized Cuban society was through agriculture and inflated prices that they paid for sugar and citrus — up to five times the global market price of sugar, inflating  Cuba’s GDP. Ironically, at the same time, the Soviet Union was providing Cuba with much of its key food imports, as well as petroleum. In total, Cuba was getting a lot more than it was giving both in cash and resources. All this came to a sudden halt in the 1990s, and the impact on farming was profound, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

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At the turn of the revolution, agriculture came to define a special breed of patriotism in Cuba. Particularly during the 1969–70 Sugar Harvest, when Fidel Castro promised that the country would harvest 10M tons if they worked together…

Cuba is an incredibly fertile island with amazing natural resources. To this day nearly one-third of the land is still used for agriculture. At the turn of the revolution, agriculture came to define a special breed of patriotism in Cuba. Particularly during the 1969–70 Sugar Harvest, when Fidel Castro promised that the country would harvest 10M tons if they worked together, it was expected that if you were a revolutionary Cuban, you would spend a couple of weeks in the Cuban countryside harvesting sugar cane. Neighbors judged each other’s commitment to the revolution based on their willingness to sacrifice their time and sweat in the fields for the greater good. There was a real sense that if everyone just chopped enough sugar cane everything would work out. Those who didn’t participate were seen as dissidents.

Finca Marta is a shared dream looking towards the future of agriculture in Cuba.

Agriculture in Cuba was fairly steady until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resulting so-called Special Period, which impacted nearly every aspect of life from electrical outages, and shortages in fuel, food and across the gamut of resources. As the saying, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, goes: Scarcity breeds innovation. This has proven true over and over again in Cuba. When faced with daunting challenges, Cubans resuelven or solve their way to a solution, often using creativity.

finca marta
Photo courtesy of Startup Cuba

In the case of Cuban agriculture, this was most clearly seen in its response to a lack of resources in fuel and fertilizer. In the 1990s balconies and barren city blocks turned into urban gardens. This push for self-sustainability could be likened to that of Victory Gardens, where during World Wars I and II, gardening took on a patriotic and necessary role in food production in the United States and Europe. In Cuba, too, an agricultural revolution was born out of a sudden and drastic need to increase domestic food production. With the resulting influx of farms, especially fruit and vegetable production increased drastically.

Without regular access to commercial pesticides and fertilizers, organic agriculture became the default method for Cuban farmers.

All agriculture in Cuba is organic, and until recently was tended to without the use of tractors and other fuel-powered machinery. Even today tractors are still a rarity. While sustainable farming is becoming trendy among hipsters and environmentalists alike, this is another example of Cuba being ahead of the curve as the planet increasingly faces resource scarcity, Cuba becomes an important example of what is possible with limited resources. Without regular access to commercial pesticides and fertilizers, organic agriculture became the default method for Cuban farmers.

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finca marta
Photo courtesy of Startup Cuba

In addition to the shifts in the methods of farming, the shifts in the structure of the farms and for the farmers were equally drastic during the Special Period. Beginning in 1994, Cuba slowly moved towards the privatization of farms. This was a bold move that focused on self-sufficiency and investing in Cuba and Cubans. Rather than exporting “what they were good at” in the neo-liberal tradition, Cuba doubled down on food production, even if it meant radical shifts in the social structure and values that produced that very food.

The government still owns the land, but gives the farmer the right to till the land perpetually with their farm titles.

Changes in policy prioritized small farmers, issuing farm titles to nearly a quarter of a million people, allowing them to till and produce food on newly converted agricultural land. The government still owns the land, but gives the farmer the right to till the land perpetually with their farm titles. Within Havana alone, nearly 200 small farms popped up, supplying its residents with a vast majority (up to 90%) of their fruit and vegetables. Despite the increase in vegetable production, Cuba still relies heavily on the import of rice, poultry, and other staples. With the change in business structure, albeit slowly, came a cultural change as well. As private businesses gained popularity and acceptance, the perception of a cuentapropista, or private business owner in Cuba shifted from someone who is selfish to it being a more normal part of Cuban society. Still, business organizations in Cuba follow different trends focused more on collectives and cooperatives. Though sole proprietorships are also quite common for smaller businesses.

Fernando Funes, unlike most Cuban farmers, has a PhD in agro-ecology from the Netherlands…

Agriculture became one of the breakout industries for the private sector in Cuba, which in recent years has grown to include licenses for a variety of businesses ranging from barbers, taxi drivers, restaurants, to retail stores. As the restaurant sector grew in Cuba, farming as a business took on a greater significance. Enter farming in modern-day Cuba, an industry that played a role in defining what business structures would look like.

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finca marta
Photo courtesy of Startup Cuba

In the Spring of 2020, I visited Finca Marta in the Artemisa province outside of Havana. Fernando Funes, unlike most Cuban farmers, has a PhD in agro-ecology from the Netherlands, where he studied how natural systems work together. He brought these learnings back to Cuba, and put these principles to work at Finca Marta. His expertise is evident in the layout of the beds, broken up by rows of small trees, in the biogas that uses animal manure, in solar energy, and in apiculture — the bees that forage throughout the farm, producing honey. It is an oasis, and its unique characteristics have made it a point of interest for other farmers, and also for agri-tourism.

Finca Marta’s diverse activities include hosting groups for farm fresh lunches, tours, and providing restaurants directly with fresh food. The farm doesn’t just grow vegetables, it grows community, and the variety of people who have come to visit is nearly as diverse as the very vegetables that the farm grows. From foodies to diplomats, Finca Marta has something for everyone.

They grow more than 60 different species of vegetables, including many like arugula, which aren’t exactly a staple of the Cuban diet.

Fernando founded Finca Marta and has become a leader in helping to shape this new era in Cuban agriculture, not just for sustainable food production, but also in envisioning how a farm can be sustainable for the workers too. They grow more than 60 different species of vegetables, including many like arugula, which aren’t exactly a staple of the Cuban diet. Many of these vegetables are delivered directly to dozens of restaurants in Havana, up to three times each week. Finca Marta is a living experiment pushing the limits of a farm’s capacity to produce food, and utilizing natural synergies to make it happen. For farmers in Cuba, Fernando proved that his studies are more than a piece of paper, they are a rich resource that can blaze a brave new trail in the challenging field of Cuban agriculture.

finca marta
Apiculture (beekeeping) is relatively underdeveloped at Finca Marta, and Fernando Funes is very proud of this project. Photo courtesy of Startup Cuba.

For Fernando Funes, Finca Marta started as a dream. It is named in his late mother’s memory, and where before lay a barren field is now an example of what is possible when sustainable farming and business organization collide. As Fernando told me, “a farm cannot be sustainable on its own, it is only when the idea is shared among others that it becomes sustainable.” A cooperative is a very complex structure, because everyone is an individual. Whereas a traditional top-down structure has many facets of the business assumed into its methods of operation, with a cooperative, decision making is collective and there are more layers of complexity. How are resources shared? How are the profits shared? How are the hard decisions made?

These are undoubtedly challenges that need to be figured out, but as evident by the economic and agricultural success of Finca Marta, and other farms that have sprung up in its wake, there are many benefits to this structure. Perhaps most important is the sense of ownership that members of the cooperative feel towards the farm. Not only do they feel like they are a meaningful part of something bigger, but also they are responsible for the farm’s success. Members of a cooperative are committed in a deeper way, and also get a more authentic community out of the work environment. Though the benefits are not just feel-good benefits, there are tangible business outcomes in terms of quality and even quantity of production.

…by sharing this story, my hope is that you too can be inspired by what is possible with sustainable agriculture, both in the farming methods, as well as for farmers.

In the US we focus so much on efficiency and productivity, but there is something intuitive about reverse-engineering a work environment where workers are happy, empowered, and involved in every step of the operation. With such a big focus on sustainable agriculture in Cuba, I admire Fernando’s attention to the symbiosis between the natural ecosystems as well as the farmers that both contribute to successful farming.

In this way, Finca Marta is bigger than just Fernando, or the land on which it sits. Finca Marta is a shared dream looking towards the future of agriculture in Cuba. New challenges warrant new solutions, and by sharing this story, my hope is that you too can be inspired by what is possible with sustainable agriculture, both in the farming methods, as well as for farmers.

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