Being an agricultural official in Cuba these days is like living in a resort town all your friends want to visit. You rarely get a moment to yourself.
For months, Havana’s government offices and its prettiest urban farms have been filled with American bureaucrats, seed sellers, food company executives and farmers who spend their evenings eating meals made with ingredients often imported or smuggled into restaurants that most Cubans can’t afford.
They seek the prizes that are likely to come if the United States ends its trade restrictions against Cuba: a new supply of sugar, coffee and tropical produce, and a new market for American exports that could reap more than $1.2 billion a year in sales, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But for some, the quest is less about the money than about what they say is the soul of Cuban agriculture.
Never miss a local story.
“The Cubans are not enthusiastic about a Burger King on every corner or Monsanto being here,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, an organic farmer.
In May, Pingree led a coalition of organic industry leaders, chefs and investors on a five-day trip here. Their mission, in part, was to encourage Cuban officials to resist the enticements of larger, more conventional American food and farming interests and persuade Cubans to protect and extend the small-scale organic practices that are already a part of their daily life.
Cuba, it turns out, is a rare oasis of organic and sustainable agriculture. For reasons of politics, geography and philosophy, the nation was forced to abandon much of its large-scale, chemical-based farming and replace it with a network of smaller farms and more natural methods.
Shortly after the revolution in 1959, Cuba began sending sugar, tobacco and research to the Soviet Union in exchange for a steady supply of goods that included food, agricultural equipment and farm chemicals. But 30 years later, when the Soviet bloc crumbled, the shipments ended.
Without gasoline and spare parts, tractors sat idle in fields. Crops rotted and cattle died. Studies show that the average Cuban lost more than 12 pounds during what President Fidel Castro called the “special period in time of peace.”
With many large government-owned farms failing, Castro told the nation to learn to grow food without chemicals. Oxen replaced tractors. Smaller, cooperative farms and new markets emerged.
To be sure, Cuba still imports 60 to 80 percent of its food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, and little or none of it is organic. Agricultural chemicals are imported from other countries without trade embargoes. The Cuban government owns about 80 percent of the land the nation could use to grow food, but more than half remains fallow.
It is unclear how much of the produce Cuba grows would qualify as organic under U.S. standards.
Still, a cohesive organic movement is growing. By its own estimates, Cuba has almost 400,000 urban farms, among them about 10,000 small organic ones. The government continues to turn land over to independent farmers to lease, although it requires most to grow food for the state.
For the group of organic true believers who traveled here in May, the dream is to help Cuba stay loyal to a sustainable style of agriculture that rejects chemicals and genetic modification. They point to an incentive: an American market hungry – and willing to pay a premium – for organic produce.
Although only 5 percent of all food sold in America is organic, those sales last year grew three times as fast as those of the overall food market, according to the Organic Trade Association. Cuba offers a new source to feed the demand for organic sugar, honey, fruit and other raw ingredients.
Yet Cuba also offers 11 million potential new customers for conventional agriculture. Just days after Pingree’s group left, the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which had already been working in the country, returned.
Founded in 2015 to promote normalizing American relations with Cuba, the group has more than 100 members, including corporations like Butterball and Cargill, commodity associations like corn refiners and soy growers, and several state farm bureaus.
The delegation returned home holding an agreement with Cuba’s Grupo Empresarial Agrícola to re-establish Cuba as a market for American agricultural products. In a follow-up stroke, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri announced on May 30 that Cuba had accepted a 20-ton donation of long-grain rice grown in his state. The last official shipment of U.S. rice to Cuba was in 2008.
Although many in the organic industry see the coalition as a threat to their cause, its leaders say they share the same goal: to help Cuba feed itself and improve its agricultural practices.
“There’s not tension, because at the end of the day, this is about how the Cuban farmer is going to raise their productivity and make their own choices,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a former Cargill executive who is now the group’s director. “The key point here is that there is room enough for everyone.”
Doug Schroeder, a soybean farmer from Illinois, came along on the coalition’s trip. His state ships about $20 million worth of corn and soy to Cuba every year under the complex set of rules governing trade between the two countries. If the United States ends its financial embargo with Cuba, that figure could jump to $220 million.
“You multiply that for the entire country and all agriculture sales, and it’s a big deal,” he said.
Those who support organic farming say there is something larger at issue than just trade. Adopting chemical-based farming methods used by large agricultural companies that have been visiting Cuba may seem a lucrative proposition, they say, but it would threaten the organic potential of thousands of acres of fallow farmland in Cuba.
Still, that future, organic or not, is most likely a long way off. Cuba’s agricultural system remains so antiquated that even seeds and wheelbarrows are in short supply.
“Everybody is adequately sober about the realities of this,” said Laura Batcha, the executive director of the Organic Trade Association.