Reform On The Range: Cubans Heed The Call To Farm

A farmer collects tomatoes on a tractor on a farm in Guira de Melena, south of Havana, in 2008 i i

A farmer collects tomatoes on a tractor on a farm in Guira de Melena, 80 miles south of Havana, in April 2008. Cuba has been lending unused land to private farmers and cooperatives as part of a sweeping effort to step up agricultural production. Javier Galeano/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Javier Galeano/AP
A farmer collects tomatoes on a tractor on a farm in Guira de Melena, south of Havana, in 2008

A farmer collects tomatoes on a tractor on a farm in Guira de Melena, 80 miles south of Havana, in April 2008. Cuba has been lending unused land to private farmers and cooperatives as part of a sweeping effort to step up agricultural production.

Javier Galeano/AP

Cuba has miles and miles of fertile, lush countryside where nothing is growing or grazing. After five decades of state-controlled agriculture, the country struggles to feed itself, forcing the government to import some 70 percent of the island's food.

Cuban President Raul Castro wants to change that and is asking enterprising Cubans to go back to the land.

Aniley Pena was watching TV two years ago when she heard the offer. The government was giving out free 10-year leases on state-owned land to anyone willing to take a crack at farming.

Today, she has 12 acres on the outskirts of Bejucal, a small town 20 miles south of Havana.

Pena is 38, rugged enough to trudge around in rubber boots, but not too earthy to wear mascara in the fields. She shields herself from the withering sun with a parasol and a Nike cap, supervising a team of men as they mix organic fertilizer into beds of radishes, carrots, scallions and spinach.

Cuban farmer Lorenzo Ramos i i

Cuban farmer Lorenzo Ramos stands next to a sign that reads "Save Mother Earth." He hopes to open a market stand at the site, to sell his fruit directly to customers. He received a five-acre plot through a government plan to help the island grow more of its own food. Nick Miroff for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nick Miroff for NPR
Cuban farmer Lorenzo Ramos

Cuban farmer Lorenzo Ramos stands next to a sign that reads "Save Mother Earth." He hopes to open a market stand at the site, to sell his fruit directly to customers. He received a five-acre plot through a government plan to help the island grow more of its own food.

Nick Miroff for NPR

Pena's tractor is a little red Ford from the Truman era she inherited from her late grandfather. She has called her farm "Las Estrellas" — The Stars. Stars are bright, and they bring clarity, she said, which is what this new vocation has given her.

"Being out here relaxes me," Pena says. "Plus I know I'm doing something good for society, and also for myself."

Independence, Sense Of Security

Pena is the new face of Cuban socialism, a private entrepreneur with a sense of social responsibility. She was trained as a veterinarian, but like many in Cuba who aren't inspired by $20-a-month government salaries, she dropped out of the workforce.

Now, she's working seven days a week and studying pest control methods at night. As part of her deal with the government, she will give one-third of her produce to the state and sell the rest for a profit.

"Having this land, you realize how productive it can be," Pena says. "When you're growing your own food, you have independence, and that gives you a sense of security."

The Castro government has approved more than 100,000 applications for state land, but so far that hasn't led to an increase in food production.

As usual, bureaucratic absurdities are to blame. Farmers can't buy tractors or trucks without government permission. Irrigation equipment and tools have to be assigned by the state.

Police checkpoints surround Havana to make sure no one is illegally sneaking produce into the city for sale on the black market.

The government's new solution is fruit and vegetable stands where farmers can sell directly to customers. They are popping up all over the island, as some Cubans are even getting back land that belonged to their families before it was nationalized in the early 1960s.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe is a dissident economist in Havana.

"The reforms are a step forward, but they're not going to fix the problem," he says. "Cuba needs more radical changes, but the government is too scared to give up control."

Feed Mother Cuba, Save Mother Earth

There's an old joke in Cuba that if education, health care and athletics are the Cuban revolution's greatest achievements, then its three biggest failings are breakfast, lunch and dinner. Government supermarkets — where many Cubans can't even afford to shop — stock imported mango juice from Mexico, chicken from Brazil and butter from Denmark. All could be easily produced locally.

Lorenzo Ramos is another farmer taking advantage of the government deal. On a recent day, he is making fertilizer from decomposing sugar cane stalks.

His five-acre plot was choked with garbage and thorny weeds when he got it a year ago. But with his machete and his rusting Soviet tractor, he and his wife have turned a wasteland into a tidy orchard of fruit tree saplings.

Some fruit varieties have grown so scarce in Cuba that Raul Castro complained about their disappearance in a speech last year.

Ramos has responded by planting rows of mangos, guavas, peaches, lemons and prized delicacies like the guanabana, or custard apple.

"Having a farm means coping with everything — ants, thunderstorms, scratches, hurricanes, waking up at dawn," Ramos says. "It's sacrifice and hard work, but somebody has to do it. We can't all be intellectuals, because then there'd be nothing to eat."

Ramos has put up a sign along the highway next to his farm, inspired by something Bolivian President Evo Morales said on TV. "Save Mother Earth," the sign reads, and Ramos is hoping to put his fruit stand right next to it.

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