A Light at the End of the Agriculture Tunnel

February 11, 2016 |

By Fernando Ravsberg

Fernando Funes on the Marta farm. Photo: Raquel Pérez Díaz

HAVANA TIMES — The Marta farm is located some 20 km from Havana. The area was dominated by rolling hills of dry, compact, stone-filled earth covered by marabou brush, so one had to be very foolish or totally insane to think an environmentally-friendly and sustainable agriculture initiative could work there.

Four years later – and against all odds – the place has become one of the most productive and ecologically sustainable farmlands, and where the farm workers receive the highest salaries. They produce 60 different types of products and sell these without any intermediaries.

This mad scheme was the brainchild of Fernando Funes and his wife. He left behind agricultural theory (he is an agronomist with a Dutch PhD) and she quit her job at the Melia hotel chain. They tell me it felt like a complete leap of faith, but that they landed on their feet.

It took them 7 months to dig a well, breaking the rock manually, armed only with a crowbar. The first thing they began to sell were mangos, no sooner were they able to grow them after clearing the land of marabou with machetes.

Cuban agriculture has been a curse on the lives of Cubans. During colonial times, it destroyed nature and the lives of hundreds of thousands of slaves. In Republican days, it was sustained by the misery of farmhands and, under socialism, it proved highly unproductive.

I have decided to publish the entirety of my interview with a man who was capable of wedding the latest in science with peasant traditions, in order to secure, on a small plot of land, a kind of prosperity that is vital to the nation, at a time when the crisis affecting agriculture appears endemic.

Part I

How does one move from theoretical to practical agriculture?

Fernando Funes: I see it as a kind of leap of faith, because theory is locked up in a drawer somewhere. Theory leads you to understand the world piecemeal, it tries to simplify things as much as possible to explain life. Practice, in contrast, is multi-dimensional, multidirectional and complex.

One of my interests in developing this project was to be able to understand agriculture from within, through its own contradictions and challenges. In the 90s, I did research on integrated systems, I believed I was thinking holistically, in a multifaceted way, but I also realized there was a huge gap between the study of agriculture as a biophysical process and an understanding of socio-economic processes.

Natural fertilizer for environmentally-friendly agriculture. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz.

What does the project consist of, how would you summarize it?

FF: We’re trying to demonstrate the validity of the theory through practice. It is an attempt to develop alternatives to improve the foundations of agriculture, with a view to improving the quality of life of the population, particularly in the countryside.

How many hectares of land do you work?

FF: The farm has 8 hectares, but our bees go out exploring 3 km beyond that. A farm’s boundaries are often imaginary.

What results have you seen?

FF: They’ve been very satisfactory. We’ve seen the child born, crawl, walk and run. We’ve cared for this child tenaciously as a family, because, without a family-based approach, it can’t be done. It’s been so from the beginning, when this was an area of wildland. We worked together because we believe we’re doing something for the good of the family and society.

Then came the farm workers, and, in a way, they’ve become part of the family. It began as two crazy people digging a well and we now have 16 motivated people, who are interested in more than the money they earn. They see the constant improvement and innovation here.

What crops do you grow?

FF: It’s a diversified system. It includes fruit trees, cattle breeding, greens and assorted vegetables. The latter has become a key measure of the value of what we’re doing. The difference between traditional agriculture and what we do is the link to the market. To satisfy people’s expectations, you have to value what you do, you have to sell things and make money.

Our profits are destined to different ends: reinvesting in the farm, protecting the environment and creating better conditions for workers.

How much do you reinvest in the farm?

FF: In our first year, we couldn’t reinvest anything, but now we reinvest around 30 % of profits. Today, for instance, we’re raising worker salaries every 6 months, as we increase production and begin to sell more. We pay the social security of all our employees and a one-day vacation every month.

I imagine you also earn enough to support your family.

FF: When my wife tells you she left her job at a hotel chain, she’s telling you how sustainable the farm is.

We’re developing different areas of production. Beekeeping gives us good income. Beef and milk give us good income and also the milk the family and workers consume. Cows also produce manure and we use that to produce biogas to run the kitchen and cover all of the farm’s energy needs. We even have a biogas fridge, and we also use the gas to light lamps when there’s a power cut. Thirteen animals produce more manure than we need to produce the gas. We pump water using solar-powered pumps. We’re trying to close the cycle to become fully self-sufficient.

What factors should one bear in mind if one wants to set up an efficient and sustainable agricultural system?

FF: There are three basic elements: the nutrient cycle, the energy cycle and the water cycle. In general terms, however, productive systems are not much integrated, they’re merely extractive. They try to get the most out of every cycle. Most farming systems don’t have the capacity to capture energy (solar, biomass or wind). So they rely on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers, which make the process more expensive, dependent on the outside and unable to grow from within.

The stones that could have been an obstacle to agriculture served building purposes in the farm. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz.

How do you solve the problem of nutrients in a soil as poor as Cuba’s?

FF: This farm has one of the worst soils in Cuba. My father thought I was insane. He’d say to me: you’ve got the least fertile soils, the place is too rocky, there are far too many hills and no water. I faced every possible setback in terms of farming but I believe you can create paradise anywhere in Cuba, a highly efficient production system.

It is not enough to have the resources, you have to design a system that will allow you to capture them, transform them and use them. In the case of nutrients, it is a very long road. The first step was to clear the marabou from the land, identify the area where we’d work, the most fertile soils, the most manageable, the closest, like the green garden.

You have to know what crops draw the most nutrients from the earth and complement for that. We found several cow farms in the vicinity with 20 years’ worth of manure, and we’re buying it from them. They’re happy, we’re happy.

We have a forage area were we dump the remains of the biodigestor. This way, we increase our productive capacity as we fertilize the forage area. We place the stuff in tanks and transport it manually. It may look precarious, but precariousness is sometimes the road to prosperity. Around 150 years ago, people in Holland would keep the animals inside the house to keep warm.

Read part two of the interview here.

Read part three of the interview here.

Share this:

What's your opinion?

  • bjmack

    Post this in Forbes Magazine! Uplifting for any country and finally some good news for a change.

  • Moses Patterson

    Nice story. If the Castros would permit individual initiative to flourish, life in Cuba would change for the better.