As you drive around Cuba, you’ll see fields of sugarcane, tobacco, and corn spread into the distance. Despite the scenic appearance, Cuba has long struggled with its agricultural production. For decades, huge portions of the island have lay fallow, and to this day the country imports the majority of its food. That is slowly changing, but Cuba still has a long ways to go until it has the ability to feed the majority of its people.
Cuba has an enormous potential when it comes to agriculture. René Dumont, a well-known French agronomist, once said, “with proper management, Cuba could adequately feed five times its current population.” As it stands, Cuba can’t even feed its own population. In 2010, Cuba imported about 80 percent of the food that it consumed; about 35 percent of this came from the U.S., making the U.S. the largest supplier of food to Cuba. What’s more, around 50 percent of the land in Cuba is unfarmed and idle.
During Batista’s time, Cuba’s most arable lands were planted with sugarcane. The sugar was then exported to the U.S. and other countries. After the Revolution, the farms were seized by the state and continued to produce sugarcane, most of which was sent to Russia (along with rum). In exchange, Russia sent petrochemicals, oil, food, and machinery to Cuba. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the agreement went kaput, and agriculture took a serious hit in Cuba. Because Cuba was so reliant on international shipments of food, the country was ill prepared to feed its own people. Farmers were skilled in large-scale industrial agriculture, but little else.
In the early 1990s, things took another nosedive when Cuba was hit with droughts and storms. At the same time, farmers were unable to get important materials, like fertilizer and farming equipment, which would have greatly increased the crop yield.
From 1990 to 1994, there was a massive drop in the production of food in Cuba and widespread famine across the island. During this Special Period, as Fidel euphemistically called it, caloric consumption plummeted and the average Cuban lost 20 pounds. Foreign trade with Cuba also decreased by 70 percent and the entire economy declined by 35 percent. U.S. policies, which expanded the embargo to foreign businesses that traded with Cuba and would not allow anyone who did business with Cuba to enter the U.S., were rightly blamed for this drastic reduction in trade.
In 1993, the government started to change its ways and decentralize the management of the country’s farms. It created independent co-ops that farmed government land but were allowed to own their crop — even so, the crop was still sold to the state at a fixed price. There are now private farms that produce about 70 percent of all of the produce in Cuba. The private farms are required to sell 80 percent of their crop to the state, and can sell the remaining 20 percent in markets.
Raúl has continued to push through new land reforms. Over 3.5 million acres (1.5 million ha) of state land is leased for free in usufruct to motivate Cuban farmers to take up the plow. These farmers are encouraged to invest time and effort in keeping the land healthy, and are allowed to pass it along to their children.
Local committees have increased power and autonomy over the production of their food, and farmers are finally being paid higher prices for crops. What’s more, private cooperatives are now allowed to manage the distribution of food, which was once controlled by the state.
Despite all of these improvements, Cuba still struggles to produce enough food for its people. Cubans also spend a tremendous amount of money on food. Although all Cubans receive food rations from the government, most people spend between 80 and 90 percent of their discretionary income on food.
Lately, small, urban community-run gardens have popped up all over Cuba. These organopónicos grow produce without fertilizer or pesticides. Although these gardens initially arose as a response to food scarcity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they now produce about half of all of the food in Cuba. Cuba previously used more fertilizers than the U.S., but is now slowly embracing a more environmental ethnic when it comes to food production.
Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba imported a huge amount of agricultural chemicals. After the fall of the Soviet bear, the supply chain dried up and Cuba was unable to afford pesticides and fertilizers from other countries.
Previously, Cuba’s agronomists supported the idea of large industrial collective agriculture. Once industrial-size farms became impossible, they had to return to the drawing board and find a way to continue growing crops. Local farmers insisted on more control of the land, and after some resistance, the government eventually decentralized the management of farms. Today, the state still owns the land, but it leases plots to farmers who are willing to produce food.
Lacking herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, Cuba’s agronomists pushed a system of agro-ecology. Agro-ecology relies on permaculture instead of monoculture, and uses natural systems to keep the crops healthy and in check. For example, marigolds are used to attract pollinators; nitrogen-fixing beans replace inorganic fertilizer; natural insecticides keep harmful bugs away; and nutrient-rich compost is made from organic products and manure. In 2007, Cuba produced more food than it did in 1988 using about one-quarter of the chemicals. That was a real agricultural victory.
Over the past 5-10 years, however, Venezuela has sent chemical fertilizer to Cuba, and the move towards organic agriculture seems increasingly less necessary. Some Cuban farmers also warn that improved relations with the U.S. could mean more chemical fertilizers and pesticides making their way into Cuban soil. After all the progress that Cuba has made with organic agriculture, it would be a shame to see it backslide into an industrial, chemical-dependent agricultural system.
What Cuba Grows
Sugar production has a long history in Cuba, and for entire decades sugarcane has enjoyed a virtual monoculture on this island. Sugar was originally exported to countries with imperialistic interests in Cuba, including Spain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, Cuba produced about 5 million tons of sugar per year; by the late 1980s, it was producing about 7.5 million tons per year. Of this, nearly 75 percent was sent to the Soviet Union.
Needless to say, the collapse of the Soviet Union had a major impact on Cuba’s economy and the sugar industry. In response, the government tried to grow even more sugar in order to keep the economy afloat. New competition, from countries like India, was also emerging. In the early 1990s, Cuba produced about 7 million tons of sugar; by 2013, the harvest had dropped to 1.4 million tons.
Since the turn of the century, Cuba has closed all but 39 of its 156 sugar mills. Over 3 million acres that were once devoted to sugar were converted to growing other crops. In the Valle de los Ingenios, which is located just outside Trinidad, you can visit several old sugar plantations. You can explore the estate houses where the owners lived and see the tools that were used to keep the mills running. The Valle was Cuba’s most important sugar region during the 19th century, and the wealth it generated helped create many of the old mansions that are still standing in Trinidad.
The other crop you’re likely to see in Cuba is tobacco. Nearly 173,000 acres (68,000 ha) is devoted to growing tobacco, making it the second most valuable agricultural product in Cuba. The most important growing area is Vuelta Abajo valley in the Pinar del Río Province; the Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara Provinces also grow a good amount of tobacco, most of it within the Vuelta Arriba region. Most tobacco farms in Cuba are privately owned and less than 25 acres (10 ha). In 2010, Cuba exported nearly 150 million cigars, which brought in about US$368 million in revenue. The largest buyers are France, Spain, and China.
Excellent coffee comes from Cuba, too. Most coffee is grown in the mountainous hills of eastern Cuba, but the best coffee comes from the Sierra Escambray above Trinidad. There are a few coffee houses in this area that serve up fresh, delicious brew. Cuba does not, however, produce as much coffee as it once did — in 2010 Cuba harvested around 5,500 tons of coffee, which was the smallest harvest in about 200 years. The top quality coffee is exported.
Citrus is also grown in Cuba. Most of it is goes into juices or extracts and is exported. Chile and Israel have made investments into the citrus production in Cuba, which could increase production.
Prior to the Revolution, Cuba had about 6.5 million cattle. After Fidel took power, the state took over cattle ranching and slaughtered herds as food production fell. By the early 1960s, there were only 2 million cattle left. However, Castro prioritized animal husbandry and by 1980 there were about 7 million head in Cuba. Things have again fallen by the wayside, and there are now about 3.7 million cattle in Cuba. The average weight has dropped by 60 percent, and milk production has fallen by 50 percent.
These days, private farmers can raise cattle, but they aren’t allowed to kill the animals for their own consumption or to even sell the meat. If a cow dies, the farmer is fined. Except at upscale of restaurants, one rarely finds beef on the menu in Cuba. Most Cubans have never even tasted beef, as it’s priced out of their budget.