THE HOLM TEAM    Agriculture.   Resources.  International Cooperation
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A Letter of Invitation to Come to Cuba in 2011
from Wendy Holm, Leader
Canada Cuba Farmer to Farmer Project

As a Canadian Agrologist, I very much welcome your interest in this very special Program!

Since 1999, Canada-Cuba Farmer to Farmer Project has been bringing farmers together to share knowledge and experience in the areas of sustainable agriculture.   Cuba is a world leader in the rapid adoption of sustainable farming practices, the replacement of farm chemicals with natural, biological controls and state support for urban, organic agriculture and measures to stimulate peri-urban agriculture.  Canada is a world leader in best farm management practices, farm cooperatives and the development of farmer-led marketing initiatives.  Together, we have more answers than we have apart.    The Project objectives are to create cooperative capacity building in support of sustainable agriculture in both countries.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, all of Cuba’s sectors were forced to adapt to a new reality.  In agriculture the challenge was particularly severe:  Cuba had to move overnight from a monoculture farm economy based on sugar to a nation that could feed its population – 80 percent of which are in the cities - from a diversified production base.   This, without the benefit of farm inputs, machinery, gasoline, fertilizers, pesticides, or feed.   To accomplish this, the State looked to Cuba’s traditional farm cooperatives for the model.

•    Massive state farms were broken up and the land redistributed into smaller, worker-owned cooperatives. 

•    Traditional farming methods were adopted, such as the use of oxen to work the land.  Cuba’s research institutes were tasked with the responsibility of finding ways to replace chemicals with natural fertilizers, integrated pest management and biological controls.

•    Small labs to produce the products needed by the farmers in each area (Centers for the Reproduction of Entomopathogens and Entomophagos) were set up across the countryside.

•    Special incentives were created to encourage peri-urban agriculture.

•    Vacant land in the cities was put to work (incentives), and urban agriculture flourished.

•    In 1998, Cuba won the Swedish Parliament’s Right Livelihood Award for global leadership in organic agriculture.

•    This summer, David Suzuki’s two part special on Cuba that highlighted Cuba’s accomplishments in sustainable farming methods. 

•    This fall, Cuba was named the only country in the world to reach national sustainability by the World Wildlife Fund.

•    On May 24, 2007, our project Enhancing Sustainable Dairy Production Capacity in Cuba (a farmer to farmer dairy project we have been leading through the Canadian NGO International Centre for Sustainable Cities; we will visit this project as part of our tour) won the prestigious Sustainable Development of Natural Resources or Protection of the Environment Award, as part of the 15th Annual Canadian Awards for International Cooperation.

The Program is 14 days in length.  Days one, two and three are spent in orientation meetings in Varadero, The next 8 days are spent days in four Cuban provinces — Ciego De Avila, Camaguey, Granma and Santiago de Cuba — visiting farms, agri-processing facilities, research stations and intensive urban agriculture cooperatives (Organoponicos) and meeting with and exchanging experiences with Cuban farmers.  On day 12 we travel to Havana, where we rest for a weekend prior to returning home.

There have been 28 Delegations of Canadian farmers – close to 600 in all - who have traveled to Cuba with this Program since 1999. 

As noted above, farmers participating inn this year’s Program will also have the opportunity to visit a dairy cooperative we have been working with on a farmer-to-farmer basis for 18 months to create a sustainable dairy production model based on solar powered fences, rotational pastures, grass/legume “pedestals” and on-farm ration production.  In a very short time, milk production has tripled.    This project - Enhancing Sustainable Dairy Production Capacity in Cuba, undertaken through the support fof the Canadian International Development Agency and Canadian NGO International Centre for Sustainable Cities - is what won us international recognition at the 15th Annual Canadian Awards for International Cooperation this May.  We have two more years of work to perfect the model.  Subsequent to that, we hope to replicate this success in a peri-urban setting using municipal effluent for irrigation.   We will visit the site of this next project in Bayamo.

It has been said that Cuba is both far behind us and way ahead of us.   Of course, not all of Cuba’s approaches are transferable.  Different climate, Different labour costs.  Different farm economy.  But surprisingly, many are. 

In 2006, I brought a group of Canadian entomologists to Cuba to learn how a relatively poor country like Cuba has achieved world leadership in the production of biological controls.  They were impressed.

For the past five years I have had the pleasure of teachin a 3-week university course for Canadian students (UBC LFS 302a International Field Studies in Sustainable Agriculture: Cuba  At the end of the course, they must answer the questions “What is happening in this country, what factors have influenced this, and what lessons, if any, does Cuba’s experience offer the rest of the world.  With permission, the essay of one student is attached.

This program offers Canadian farmers the opportunity to see and experience first hand how a small country can achieve what the rest of the world is trying to accomplish in a vibrant and engaging farmer-to-farmer context,

The cost to participate as a Delegate in our 2011 Program is $3,200 CAD plus airfare.  This includes all accommodation, all meals (excluding beverages and 3 lunches and 2 dinners in Havana), tips, transportation in Cuba, translation, and airport transfers in Cuba.   Additional costs incurred by each Delegate may include airport parking, airport accommodation in Canada (for flights departing or returning late at night or in the early morning hours), airport departure taxes (Cuba $25 USD), the cost of connecting flights in Canada and incidental expenses.

If you are a farmer, we would be very pleased to have you and your family members join us.   This trip is deductible as a business expense for farmers.

Please feel free to contact me for any further information!

Warm regards

Wendy Holm, P.Ag.


UBC AGSC 302: Field Studies in Sustainable Agriculture, Cuba, May 1-22, 2005,
Essay submitted in partial fulfillment of course requirements
June 5, 2005

Question:   What is happening in Cuban agriculture, what are the factors supporting this, and what, if any, relevance does this have to broader issues of global concern?

    Cuba’s experiment in organic agriculture does have relevance for the wider world – if we are first careful to understand the unique circumstances of their success. Cuba differs greatly from the majority of the modern world, especially since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It is isolated, politically, economically and geographically. There is an overwhelming amount of state presence and control in nearly all economic activity. The influence, limited to the point of imperceptibility, of multinational corporations on both the economy and state policy bears almost no comparison to current trends in the rest of the world where these corporations often exercise significant control over government policy through their economic clout. Politically, despite one-party rule there is a significant and, frankly, surprising amount of political freedom and an empowering grassroots structure to political organization. This is combined with a powerful and wide-reaching state apparatus, allowing for much higher levels of state control and faster action than in most of the Western democratic countries.

There are also issues of resource scarcity and necessity, both of which are somewhat unique to Cuba. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, due to Cuba’s political and economic isolation, importing food at affordable prices was not a plausible option, nor was the continued import of agricultural inputs, fuels or machinery. Cuba simply lacked the resources to either continue with industrial agriculture or to feed its own people with food imports. This left two options: political and economic reform, likely to be on the Americans’ terms, in order to end the blockade, or massive agricultural reform with the goal of self-sufficiency. The first option was for obvious reasons unpalatable to the Cuban government; this left them with the absolute necessity of devising a way to feed their people without modern machinery, inputs or techniques. Cuba’s experiment in organic agriculture was thus not truly an experiment but rather a matter of national survival.

The development of organic agriculture in the West will, in all likelihood, take place very differently than it has in Cuba – barring, of course, an agricultural crisis brought on by falling yields. Currently organic agriculture is developing along a grassroots path – adopted piecemeal by individual farmers concerned with environmental impacts or with the economics of production (especially given rising demand for organically-produced goods).  Without a serious food supply crisis, western states are unlikely to throw their weight behind a national-scale transition to organic agriculture – the status quo will rule, supported by the political and economic clout of large agribusiness which stands to lose the most from a transition to reduced-input, reduced-mechanization, reduced-GMO and reduced-monocrop style of production characteristic of organic agriculture.

Even should these states want to support organic agriculture, they would not be able to support it nearly as effectively as the Cuban government, which after all does, for better or for worse, exercise a far higher level of control over political and economic activity than do any Western countries. Furthermore, it is an unfortunate reality that, facing the combined political and economic clout of MNCs, global financial institutions promoting austerity at all costs to national development, cheap imports of agricultural products from world markets and economically powerful nations bent on preserving their interests regardless of the sovereignty of others, most developing countries simply lack the ability to transform their agricultural production from industrial monocrop agriculture to sustainable, low-input, self-sufficient agriculture.

Cuba’s importance is not, therefore, as a blueprint for the development of organic agriculture in the rest of the world; Cuba’s circumstances are, for the most part, unique and irreproducible. Cuba’s key importance lies in the fact that it is a working refutation of the idea promoted by many that organic agriculture is incapable of meeting world food needs. A country with few resources, few allies, limited income and a colonial past which left them far behind much of the world in terms of national development has managed on a national scale that which many have proclaimed impossible.

Cuba’s example will help support the expansion of organic agriculture in Western nations as well as providing an alternative framework for agricultural recovery should the threatened agricultural crisis arrive. Rather than showing what should be done, it shows what is possible: a better lesson in the end, as nations with vastly different circumstances will be able to apply Cuba’s knowledge and achievements in politically, culturally and economically appropriate ways - that is, if they are willing to learn these lessons. So far it appears that they are not; it appears that there will need to be some sort of crisis of necessity, just as there was in Cuba, to promote the massive change in thinking and practices necessary for the national-level transitions to organic and sustainable agriculture. If we do not learn before it is too late then, at the very least, we will know that there is the potential for sufficient production should current practices prove truly unsustainable. It is to be hoped, however, that Cuba’s example will motivate others, be they individuals or states, to attempt the same, in adapted and appropriate ways, while the adoption of organic and sustainable agriculture is still a luxury rather than a necessity.

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