by Jack Gray
Introduction and History
In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent farmers. We traveled through the western half of Cuba for two weeks visiting farms and talking to farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.
Cuba has been a socialist country since a few years after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in January of 1959. The goals of the revolution and the radical changes that have come about over the last 21 years are keys to understanding present-day Cuba.
Life in Cuba prior to 1959, simply put, was miserable for most and luxurious for a few. 70% of Cuba’s total area was monopolized by only 8% of those who owned land. One third of the island was owned by 250 cattle latifundias (ranches). Sugar, however, ruled supreme. Sugar estates controlled 70-75% of the arable land. The heavy concentration in sugar caused very high annual unemployment because of the seasonality of the zafra, the sugar cane harvest. At the same time it kept land out of food production, and forced a heavy reliance on imported food. The result of all these factors was a poverty-ridden society of unemployment, malnutrition, ill health, illiteracy and a terribly corrupt government. Conditions were ripe for a change.
In January of 1959, the change began. After two years of bitter fighting the regime of Fulgencio Batista finally crumbled. Fidel Castro’s peasant-based revolution had been fought and won in the name of social and economic justice for all. Since 1959 Castro’s government has maintained these goals and improved the welfare of almost all Cubans.
In 1959 the life expectancy in Cuba was 50 years, by 1979 it had risen to 72 years. The infant mortality rate was estimated at 60 deaths per thousand live births in the 1950’s while in the first 6 months of 1979 the rate was a low 14.6 deaths per thousand compared to the 1976 U.S. rate of 15.1. The improvement in dental care was evident to one Cuban member of our tour who had left Cuba in 1961. He marveled at the beautiful and healthy teeth of the rural children we saw. There were 1 million illiterates in 1959 (1957 population was 6.4 million), in 1979 there were only 12,000 who were of age but hadn’t received a sixth grade education. The strides in health and education have been proclaimed the greatest achievements of the revolution. By 1968 the State employed everyone except for those who were still farming privately.
In no sector of Cuban society have things changed more in the last 21 years than in agriculture. Two Agrarian Reform Acts in 1959 and 1963 gave, free of charge, clear title to the land they had worked, to more than 100,000 sharecroppers and small tenant farmers. At the same time they nationalized all corporate farms and made it illegal for any single private landowner to own more than 167 acres. The reforms also made it illegal for any nonfarmers to own or purchase land. Farmers can pass their farms on to their children only if their children are going to work the land. If the children choose not to farm, then they must sell the land to the State.
With this, a new goal for Cuban agriculture emerged. Rather than supplying profits to a few, Cuban agriculture’s goal became that of meeting the needs of all Cubans. At first, since sugar had always meant poverty to the rural poor, the concentration was on increasing food at the expense of sugar production. So rice production increased by 96%, beans 136%, corn 92%, and potatoes 46% in the first three years after the revolution. But Cuba soon learned that along with food they needed other commodities such as petroleum, fertilizer, and machinery if their country was to prosper. In order to import they had to export, so Cuba fell back on what it could grow best, sugar. Once again sugar took on its traditional place as the key factor in the Cuban economy but this time it was used as the major source of foreign exchange. Even though sugar production is still number one, the effort to diversify and increase food production carries on.
The Tour Begins
Our tour began in Havana with an orientation session with Lazaro Perez Perdomo, Foreign Relations Director of ANAP. Looking back on it, the session was very informative, because he outlined the agricultural system in Cuba and the functions of ANAP. Most people know that Cuba is socialist but few realize that 21% of the country is owned privately by independent farmers. It is these farmers that are ANAP members. The ANAP membership is very important to Cuban agriculture, producing the following % of total production:
- Sugar 18
- Tobacco 78
- Vegetables 64
- Coffee 55
- Fruits 59
- Root Crops 33
- Cocoa 72
- Cattle 29
ANAP is the go-between which links the independent farmer and the State. It coordinates and helps fit Cuba’s only private sector into the socialist planned economy. ANAP also works for the farmer in bringing farm problems and suggestions to the attention of the State.
One key to understanding Cuban agriculture is to understand the three broad forms of farm organizations. The first is simply the private farmer who operates his own farm. The average size of these farms is 32 acres though many are subsistence level plots of an acre or less and the largest by law is only 167 acres. For the most part these farmers, though independent, belong to local ANAP associations for credits and services through which they obtain credit from the state issued in fertilizer, seed and equipment at 6% interest. When it comes time to sell, they sell all they produce to ACOPIO, the government marketing agency.
The second form of organization is also private. In this case, however, individual farmers have banded together to form cooperatives in which their parcels of land are owned and farmed together as one unit. Co-op members are split into work crews and are paid wages as well as a share of co-op profits. Co-ops also sell their produce to ACOPIOs but they receive their credit from the state at only 4% interest.
The final form is the State farm. All of the largest farms, many of which are sugar cane, beef cattle or dairy farms, are owned by the State and are worked by employees of the State. State farms consist, for the most part, of land taken over from large landholders through the Agrarian Reforms but also of land purchased from independent farmers. At retirement age many independents sell out to the State in exchange for free housing and a pension.
The best way (the easiest for me) to give more detail on Cuban agriculture in general and on some farms in particular is to just tell of some of our farm visits.
On our trip to Cienfuegos in the south our first stop was the Espartaco Sugar Mill. It was built in 1837 and its last major modernization had been in 1911. Even so, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the mill. Very few modern sugar plants have been built. This slowness to modernize underscores the fact that Cuba is a very poor country. There are many things that Cubans would like but progress is slow. There is only so much that they can afford. One of the interesting things about the mill is that it is powered completely by burning bagasse. Bagasse is the fibrous remains of the sugar cane after all of the sugary liquid is squeezed out. It is also used to make paper and pressboard.
On the way back to our hotel we were lucky enough to talk our Cuban guide and interpreter, Carlos Alfonso, into stopping at a small farm along the road. As we streamed off our bus we were met by the owner of the farm, a very friendly older man. He wasn’t taken back at all, largely because he was very proud of his farm and definitely wanted to show it off. He quickly started answering our questions and told us what he thought we should know. He had 7 acres which were beautifully laid out. Three quarters of his land was leased to the State and was currently in tomatoes, which he rotated with rice. He received 80 pesos per month rent from the State. A peso was worth about $1.30, so if 5 acres were rented all year, he was getting about $250 per acre. On the rest of his land he grew papayas, malanga, lemons, oranges, beans, bananas, okra and a few pigs. None of his land was wasted. He even had tomatoes and guava plants growing up through his barbed wire fence and a row of peppers between the fence and an irrigation ditch two feet away. The place was beautiful. He had purchased the pump with which he watered his farm from the association of credits and services that he belonged to. He worked his farm with a team of oxen and his only equipment seemed to be a ditcher and a walking plow that he had had for 35 years. The produce he grew and maybe an occasional pig were sold to ACOPIO or anyone who happened along and wanted to buy. In one small corner of the farm were four or five tiny houses in which 25 people lived. The man had 10 children, several of whom lived there with their families. Even with 10 children none of them wanted to stay and work the farm. Some problems are universal.
From our bus window we saw many small independent farms and this one seemed between the two extremes. Many were plots of an acre or two; They would have a small wood and/or grass hut called a Bohio, a small garden and perhaps a goat or a couple of pigs. With luck they might be self-sufficient. At the other extreme was the type of private farm that we visited from our Havana base.
The farm we saw on the outskirts of Havana was very different even from the 7 acre farm that we saw in Cienfuegos. The area we visited supplies vegetables and root crops to the tables of Havana. The farm is a member of the Jesus Menendez Independent Farmers Association for Credit and Services. The association is made up of 42 farms with an average size of 67 acres. Before the revolution most of these farmers rented from a few big land owners. The revolution gave them their land and now they are prosperous and very thankful. We visited the farm of the President of the association. As the map indicates he had a very diversified 56 acre farm. We asked them how they decided what to grow. Their response was that they owed a lot to “the revolution”, the term generally used to describe the current government, so they pretty much agreed to grow whatever the State thought best. The farmers association as a whole would agree to the plan and then they worked out who would grow what. The association tries to give every farmer a mix of high and low priced crops but nonetheless some would end up “sacrificing” a bit more. Those who didn’t go along with the plan would not get any harvest help and would be chastized at the annual meeting of the association.
The farmers in the association get extra help from a number of different sources. Within the association there are four mutual assistance brigades which are organized to help each other out at busy times. In some cases they actually hire a State worker to work an extra job. A major State program throughout Cuba had school children helping with farm work. The State feels that part of a child’s education should be using their hands in farming. This is both an attempt to get urban kids out into the countryside to break down the bias against farming and rural life, and to make children productive members of society by supplying unskilled labor. This was done through two programs: schools-in-the-countryside and schools-to-the-countryside. The first program is just what it sounds like. Junior and senior high boarding schools are built out in rural areas, usually as an integral part of a State farm. The students have classroom studies half the time, and the other half is spent working in the fields. Though usually used in State farms the schools-to-the-countryside program was being used by farmers in the Jesus Menendez Association. In this program the entire student body spends 45 days in productive agricultural work. The farmers pay the State on a piece work basis, so much for weeding a certain length row of tomatoes or picking so many pounds of beans, etc. The last major source of extra help is from “volunteers”. For major harvests such as tobacco, citrus and sugar cane, many urban adults head to the countryside to help. This is usually done on State farms where the volunteer work is seen as patriotic work. One farm cooperative we visited used volunteers organized through urban block groups called CDRs. The cooperative paid the CDR for its members’ work. The co-op said that some help is better than others and that one bus driver that volunteers every year is the best tobacco cutter around.
Independent farmers like those in the Jesus Menendez Farmers Association are in a class of their own in Cuba. Unlike any other group in Cuba, they own land and work for themselves. At the same time, like all other citizens, they have free heaith care, education, and access to all of the other social benefits. They have steady farm markets; they know how much they’ll get for a crop before they plant it. This combination of factors along with the fact that they pay no taxes of any kind has made some of the independent farmers the wealthiest folks in Cuba! This is amazing since the largest of them have only 167 acres. They are the only exception to the rule that no one is paid more than four times as much as anyone else. This is because they are able to run their own businesses and therefore can make any amount. One Jesus Menendez farmer said that the average farmer in the area made between $400 and $520 per month, which is equivalent to the very highest salaries paid by the State. We were told that some independent farmers can make more than double this amount. Because of the obvious economic difference between them and everyone else, the State has encouraged the formation of farm cooperatives and the absorption of independent farms into State farms.
While still in Cienfuegos we also visited the “7th of November” sugar cane cooperative. This was a fairly new co-op, founded on August 21, 1977. It was relatively small, with only 37 members. The most immediately noticeable thing about the cooperatives was the village of a dozen or so neat new wooden houses that was home to the co-op members. Before the co-op was formed, each family lived somewhat isolated in its Bohio without any modern conveniences. Now each family has built its own home at the selected village site. The State has promoted cooperatives because it believes that production can be increased by combining many smaller farms into larger units where people and equipment can be used more efficiently. Another important reason that cooperatives are favored is that getting people to work together for the common good is much more in keeping with the political philosophy of Cuba, socialism, than are private individuals working only for themselves. Sugar cane production at the 7th of November has gone up 50% as a result of forming the cooperative. The people also commented that in the cooperative they had more spirit in their work and they enjoyed living and working closer together. They used to work alone and only saw each other when they took a day off and made a special effort.
To encourage people to form cooperatives, the State helps with the planning and also promises modern conveniences. The 7th of November cooperative was to be hooked up to electricity early in 1980.
Though sugar cane was its main crop, the cooperative also grew vegetables, fruits, hogs, and cattle. In addition, each family had its own garden plot.
The co-op has two tractors, several teams of oxen and a lot of people power. The cane was planted, fertilized and, because of the hilly terrain, cut by hand. A sugar cane combine has been developed and is in use in many places but is only effective on relatively flat land. 80% of the cane grown for the Espartaco sugar mill had been combined. Throughout Cuba we found oxen working right alongside tractors. The Government officials and ANAP representatives would point us toward the tractors rather than have us ooh and aah over the oxen. They wanted to show off what they were proudest of, the arrival and advancement of technology in Cuba. The teamsters, however, loved and were proud of their animals and were always happy to show them off. All of the new tractors are a 60 horsepower eastern European model, nothing bigger and nothing smaller as far as we could see.
We visited another cooperative farm called the Republic of Chile Cooperative, when we went west from Havana into the Pinar Del Rio Province. This co-op had started in 1972 and was quite a bit bigger. It had about 940 acres and 552 people. Here, even more than at the 7th of November, the new housing stood out, and was probably an even better incentive for private farmers to join up. There were ninety completed apartments with more on the way. Each family paid about 10 pesos a month rent. The major crop was tobacco (remember Cuban cigars?), but they also raised guava, coffee, cattle, beans, rice, cassava and hogs. They hoped some day to have a dairy and include the entire valley, which would make them four times as big as they are now. To do so a lot of private farmers would have to join. We found out that it was very easy to join the co-op. Practically all that was needed was the desire to do so. Getting out of it isn’t so easy. You could leave, but not with any land.
All adult members of the cooperative form what is called the general assembly that is the policy-making body of the co-op. The assembly elects a council of directors that carries out the policy set by the assembly. Profits of the co-op are split and go several different directions. One part goes to pay for the various assets that each family brings into the cooperative. The joining farmers are usually paid off in four or five years. Other portions of the profits go for member wages, investments, social programs, and, if anything is left over, to the members. Perdomo had told us that cooperatives in general had returned 100% on most investments. One co-op he cited was bringing in 11 pesos profit per person every day.
Throughout our tour I was trying to get a handle on how the planned economy actually worked. I picked up a little here and there, and at this co-op I gained a few more insights and found out how variable the system seems to be. The Central Planning Commission establishes a five year plan and a part of this is the annual national agricultural plan. The agricultural plan is basically how much of what the State would like to see produced. The final plan is developed by having input from farmers about what and how much they feel they can produce. After some negotiations, the final plan is arrived at. The negotiations seem to be a back and forth dialogue between local farmers and the State with various intermediaries. Individual farmers and the farm cooperatives work through ANAP and the State farms work through the Ministry of Agriculture which is the main government agricultural agency. Then, I think, production contracts are drawn up between the State and the various farms. This then sets each farm’s goals for itself for the next year. Prices are set by the Ministry of Agriculture and ANAP together. They are set so that one crop isn’t particularly more profitable than another, at least theoretically, and are based on production costs and societal need. Every 5 years ANAP analyzes the prices to check out their fairness to its members.
The representative of the Republic of Chile co-op said that the co-op pretty much decides what they want to plant and how much to plant except for tobacco. Incredibly enough, part of their decision making is based on hearing on the radio, and reading in the paper, what crops the country’s leaders say need to be emphasized.
Another interesting point at this co-op dealt with marketing. Evidently ACOPIO picks up at the co-op the beans, rice, tobacco, or whatever was contracted for, but they don’t take any surplus production. The surplus is a problem. So instead of forcing the extra to rot or onto the black market (which does exist), the State has opened markets in town where farms can bring their surplus. This was only an idea when we were in Cuba, but since has become so successful that now 10-15% of all the food consumed goes through these markets. The plan was to charge the farm rent for their stand in the market. Prices were at first going to be set by demand and later maximums would be set. The State saw this as a way to increase production, particularly for easily spoiled produce from small acreages that ACOPIO has a hard time handling effectively, but it sounds like it has gone far beyond that.
Though a majority of state-owned land is in sugar production all three State farms that we saw were dairy operations. The development of the dairy industry has been one of Cuba’s great agricultural achievements. Before the revolution, very few rural families were able to get milk. Now, every young child is guaranteed a liter per day. Milk production increased by 51% between 1967 and 1975. The first thing I saw from the plane on the way into Havana were uniform clusters of buildings interspersed with green pastures which I later learned were dairies. It also seemed like everywhere we drove there were dairies, so I guess it was fitting that the first farm we visited in Cuba was a State dairy farm.
On the eastern outskirts of Havana we visited the El Congre Dairy Enterprise. It had been started in 1972 and was still being built. Most of this farm had been put together by purchasing smaller independent farms to form one large operation. Actually, it would be better to describe it as one large management unit. When it is finished it will have 96 separate dairies. Some facilities will be shared by the various dairies such as “calf centers” (10 when complete), “growth centers” for older calves and yearlings (there will be 26), but for the most part the dairies are all separate. When we were there they had 63 functioning dairies producing 9240 gallons a day. They had started in 1972 with four small dairies producing only about 80 gallons a day and all milking was done by hand. In five years they hope to be producing 21,700 gallons per day. The dairies within the enterprise vary in size. Three examples we were given were 120, 180 and 288 cows; some must have been much smaller for all of the numbers to work out, because the cows averaged only 2 gallons per day. We’ll talk about this low average in a bit.
The Enterprise was split into four districts with a director heading up the whole shebang and a fairly typical heirarchy under him. It’s interesting to note that there is also a union of agricultural workers. 1,300 people were employed in the enterprise either as part time help or in a salaried position. Salaries at another similar State farm range from $160 to $400 per month. Housing here was almost identical to the housing at the Republic of Chile Cooperative, new apartments with electricity, running water and indoor plumbing. The housing offered was an important reason why many independent farmers had decided to sell to the State. We learned that the men usually don’t want to leave their farms, but the State talks to their wives about the new, modern housing and often she then pressures her husband into moving.
The other two State enterprises we saw were specialized breeding farms. One was also in the Havana Province and was directed by Fidel Castro’s older brother Ramon. The Valleys of Picadura are the focal point for the dairy herd improvement program in Cuba. Cuba’s native cattle, Cebu, are a tough, heat-, humidity- and insect-resistant beef breed, which are related to Brahmas. Unfortunately, their breeding for beef has made them relatively poor milk producers. This means that when Cuba set its goal of producing its own milk that it had to turn to other breeds. However, the breeds we know as good milk producers such as Holsteins, Guernseys, and Jerseys do not hold up very well in tropical climates. (Neither do heavy horses.) The result has been a crossbreeding program of Cebus for their resistance to the Cuban climate with Holsteins for maximum milk production. This is probably the largest tropical milk cow experiment going on in the world. The Valleys of Picadura were discovered to have a microclimate in which purebred Holsteins could thrive so it was transformed from rocky marginal forest land into a highly productive system of dairies. The goal of this farm is to raise bulls and cows bred for high milk production. The average milk production is about 5-1/4 gallons per day. This is 2-1/2 times as much as the average at El Congre where they do not yet have as much Holstein influence in their cows. Picadura’s top producers go as high as 13.2 gal./day (approx 106 lbs.) which is very respectable. Each dairy herd is split three ways for management; dry cows, high producers and low producers. As many of the fields as possible are irrigated and they are cross-fenced into 10-12 acre pastures which are used on five day rotations with 30-40 cows. They are currently testing one day rotations and they have already tried and rejected milking three times per day. I was interested to hear that yogurt is fed to the calves because it is very digestable and reduces scours. Mastitis is not much of a problem because as the Cubans said it is only caused by poor management.
The animals are wormed and sprayed for ticks regularly. The worst bulls go for meat; the best go to the artificial insemination (AI) farm. All of the Cuban dairies breed their cows AI to upgrade their herds as fast as possible. Their management sounded pretty good overall.
The Camillo Cienfuegos State Farm in Pinar Del Rio Province was the final one we visited. It had the dual purpose of breeding cattle for milk and meat. On its 45,000 acres it had 38 dairies, one 10,000 head feedlot and 52,000 head of cattle including 8,000 dairy cows. The animals are managed much the same as at the Valleys of Picadura. The climate prohibited purebred Holsteins so the milk production was only a little over two gallon per day. One of the main features of this operation is their herds of beef cattle. They maintain distinct herds of Brahma, Cebu, Santa Gertrudis, Charolais and perhaps others which we did not see. Their purpose is to have on hand genetically pure herds of different breeds for experimentation and comparison. The head vet who was showing us around favored the Charolais because they didn’t get cancer eye and were the best meat producers. They brought out and lined up some of their best animals for us to see. It was quite a show. Along with handsome Charolais, Cebu, Santa Gertrudis and Holstein-Cebu crosses were a number of fine light horses. Evidently, many of Cuba’s show and cow horses come from the 1,200 head herd here. We found a good deal of pasture grass experimentation going on in conjunction with the beef and dairy herds. Here they were trying a Bermuda-King grass cross which looked like it would grow better than the native grasses, particularly in the winter.
Throughout Cuba we heard different things about farm structures and production. Sometimes facts matched, sometimes they were contradictory, and sometimes it seemed like the exception was the rule. One thing that was consistent everywhere we went was that we never saw anyone hungry or in need of medical care. Since we had several days to wander and explore on our own, we didn’t feel that we were seeing just what they wanted us to. Even in our free time no one discovered hungry or sick people. This isn’t to say that everyone has everything they ever dreamed of. Matter of fact, far from it, as the recent exodus of 120,000 Cubans to the U.S. attests to.
In fact, another consistency is that Cuba is a very poor country. But what it does have is distributed to everyone. Cuba is truly an under-developed, non-industrialized country. It wasn’t possible for me to really understand what this meant until I experienced it firsthand. I think it’s important for everyone living in a developed country to see and feel, in order to better understand, where we fit into the global scheme of things.
Yet another consistency was the people. They were warm, friendly, and very hospitable. It was also exciting and at times overpowering to see so many people working with such spirit for each other, for the common goal of building their country so that one and all can prosper.
Finally, Cuba was consistently beautiful. It’s a stunningly green, picturesque country. Every once in a while I wish the Small Farmer’s Journal was in color and now is one of them.
Along with these consistencies there were several aspects of Cuban agriculture which left me troubled. The most disconcerting was the headlong rush into large-scale agriculture. Several farmers specifically told us that the U.S. was an agricultural model for them. They wanted more and bigger tractors, more chemicals, and bigger farms. The long-term agricultural goal seemed to be to increase production by increasing farm sizes and the use of high technology machinery. This sort of thinking is already proving faulty in the U.S. and it looks to be worse for Cuba because they need to import so much. Cuba doesn’t have much of an industrial base yet to build the machinery and it imports 90% of its oil.
Already in Cuba the efficiency of larger and larger farms and their structures is in question. We heard conflicting reports on the relative efficiencies of the independent farmers versus that of the co-ops and State farms. Several times we heard that no one is more dedicated and more productive than the independent farmer. One of the people we heard this from was a small independent farmer who worked for the State during the week and on his own farm after work and on Sundays (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). But then at the 7th of November co-op and other places they said production definitely went up because of coming together. One influence that lessens the contradiction is that the least productive farms are probably those most likely to join a co-op or sell to the State, so it’s possible that both statements are true. I have also read that there is a lack of managers for the State farms. As this shortage decreases the State farms should become more and more productive, unless motivation is a problem.
Sugar is another problem. In one way or another sugar will probably remain to plague Cuba for a long time to come. Cuba still is too dependent upon sugar. There aren’t any easy answers to this and they have already made incredible strides in dealing with their sugar dependence.
One positive aspect to these problems is that policy can change very quickly. Since so much of the information flows from the top government circles down to the grassroot level, a decision at top can soon cause large changes throughout the system.
After visiting Cuba and seeing an agricultural system vastly different from our own, it’s hard not to wonder about our own. There’s no question that the U.S. is a very different country from Cuba and has different needs. However, we can still learn from what has gone on in Cuba. What agrarian reforms should we enact? What if non-farmers couldn’t own farm ground? And large corporations couldn’t farm? What if we had a popular government that really supported small farms? How about guaranteed markets and honest prices? What would this mean for rural communities and our whole society? It’s worth a thought and a dream.
I was left with many strong feelings toward this country. Some bad, many good, and a few ambiguous. But after putting all my feelings together I can say that I was very impressed. If you every get a chance to visit Cuba, snap it up; you’ll never forget it.
I would like to thank Sonja Hedlund and Dick Riseling for organizing the ‘Farmer’s Tour of Cuba’ and for, along with Phil Bromley, photos and factual detail. A special thanks to my wife, Mary Jo Wade, for helping me put this article together. A few facts were also pulled out of Cuba Review, Vol. VI, No. 4, and an article Rural Development and Agricultural Development in Cuba by Jan and Cornelia Flora.