A trip back in time

International trends | Spring 2020
BY STEPHEN W. SMITH, PhD, FASIC, CLIA, CAIS
A Cuban tobacco farmer ties up harvested tobacco leaves.
A Cuban tobacco farmer ties up harvested tobacco leaves. (Photos: Stephen W. Smith)

On a recent trip to Cuba, Stephen Smith got a firsthand look at agriculture in this unique country south of Florida.

You may think that a trip to Cuba by Americans is difficult to pull off these days. In fact, in the absence of COVID-19 travel restrictions, it is not difficult, and a visit to this country can be extremely rewarding. My wife, MaryLou, and I recently spent eight days in Cuba, experiencing the culture and observing the country’s agricultural practices. I almost cannot quit thinking about it, as the people and the images are embedded now in my brain.

The vintage cars are, as expected, quite impressive — Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford models from the late 1940s and 1950s are found all over Havana. Vintage trucks can also be found, and they are quite impressive to me as a truck aficionado. The cars are actually owned by the Cuban government and driven by taxi drivers who work for the government. These drivers enjoy the tips they receive from tourists, mostly from Europe.

Beyond Havana, we traveled to the Vinales Valley, which is approximately four hours from the capital city. This is where we really got exposure to and acquainted with the Cuban people. The people are extremely friendly, and once we got to know them, they were very willing to describe their circumstances and their lives. Tourists can book rooms in what are essentially independent and privately owned, government-sanctioned rentals, similar to what we would consider bed-and-breakfast rented rooms. Their hospitality was outstanding.

Cuban agriculture

Oxen are used for cultivation and plowing and for agricultural transportation.
Oxen are used for cultivation and plowing and for agricultural transportation.

In the Vinales Valley, agriculture is akin to agriculture in the United States — but say 140-160 years ago. The only tractor we observed was a tractor pulling a potable water tank and trailer to fill the cisterns at Vinales homes. Cultivation and plowing are accomplished by oxen or horse. Hoeing is done by people with a hoe or shovel. Agriculture transportation is by horseback or horse-drawn cart. 

The crops that we observed in the Vinales Valley are mostly leafy greens and other vegetables, tobacco and coffee. The farmers also raise chickens, ducks and turkey.

Thirty years ago, the agricultural economy was strong in both sugar cane and tobacco. The Soviet Union supported the sugar production and bought 100% of the sugar. In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cuban economy took a dramatic downturn. Agriculture specifically took a hit, but the whole of the economy did as well. At the present time, the primary underpinning of the economy is tourism, including what might be called agro-tourism. Tourists can walk or hike, ride horseback, explore, and take photographs as we did.

Annual rainfall is in excess of 1,600 mm per year with most of the rainfall occurring in May through September. Irrigation can be found to some extent, but some fields are not irrigated and therefore fully reliant on precipitation. 

Mini-sprinklers irrigate onions and other produce on a raised bed under shade cloth
Mini-sprinklers irrigate onions and other produce on a raised bed under shade cloth

We visited one farm, which was a Cuban government-sponsored farm intended to encourage the Cuban people to return to their agricultural heritage to be less reliant on tourism. This farm included irrigated areas in shade houses with raised beds, drip irrigation, mini-sprinkler irrigation and sprinkler irrigation with impact sprinklers. 

We were able to meet with the long-time farm manager at this demonstration farm, and we also enjoyed lunch with the tobacco farmer who gave us some Cuban cigars as a gift. Many farmers work the streets of Vinales selling their goods.

My wife is very interested in soil health and noticed that every bit of manure and dried vegetative matter is put to good use to make compost, resulting in beautiful local soils.

We had an incredible overall experience, met some wonderful Cuban people, and yes, we would go back given the opportunity.  

Stephen W. Smith, PhD, FASIC, CLIA, CAIS, is an agricultural consultant in Colorado and the principal for Wade Water LLC.

Traveling to Cuba

Most recently, the COVID-19 virus has severly restricted international travel. Under normal circumstances, the U.S. State Department allows U.S. flights into Havana only and no other Cuban airports. The State Department has criteria posted on its website regarding the purpose of travel. Our trip was based on “support to the Cuban people.” Check the criteria before planning any trip. In our situation, we obtained a visa at the airline ticket counter just before boarding and departing for Havana. 

The U.S. State Department website pertaining to travel to Cuba from the United States is here.


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