By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES — Organoponicos or urban organic farms in Cuba are a style of farming that can be used to produce vegetables, condiments, various crops and fruits. Tania Reyes Ferro, a 45 year old Cuban lady, is one of the few women who is in charge of an organoponico in the municipality of Candelaria. Her dedication and passion for her work give her the strength to continue on as a farmer.
HT: Having an organoponico is good for your financial and food situation. What disadvantages are there to working the land?
Tania Reyes: I studied agriculture but I never practiced it. I never thought that after all these years I would have a piece of land to cultivate. Working the land is hard. I’ve had problems with my cervix, backbone, waist, lower abdomen. I’ve been diagnosed with generalized osteoarthritis; when I suffer an attack and I can’t go to the fields, my children help me cook and do other chores. Whatever I collect is enough for us to eat at home. We use the money we get from selling extras to buy rakes, hoes, we don’t have the farm implements we need to do more work.
HT: How much do you have to give to the State for farming?
TR: We don’t produce very much on my plot, it’s just a hectare which I’ve divided into the garden and fruit trees. As the plot is very small, the only thing I have to do is give fresh condiments, vegetables and fruit to the maternity center and the Jose Luis Tacende primary school for disabled children. I pay a social contribution to the cooperative I belong to.
HT: Do you use any chemicals on your crops?
TR: No, there are many alternatives to getting rid of pests. For example, we collect seeds and leaves from the Neem Tree, which is a pesticide, we mash them up and let it set so we can fumigate the next day. We also use ashes of a fire, none of these products are harmful to our health, plants grow better and pests are kept under control using natural products. I have planted Mexican Marigolds because of their different colors and its unpleasant smell which keeps bad insects away so they don’t attack the plants; sunflowers, basil, millet and rosemary are all natural repellents, I also use blue, yellow and white traps.
HT: I imagine it’s hard to get a hold of seeds.
TR: There is a store that sells them here but they don’t have them a lot of the time or they are bad quality. I’m trying to leave some of my plants which give me seeds like lettuce and runner beans for example. I have 17 crops, six which are currently in production: moringa, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, oregano, leeks. Sweet potato, corn, cassava, caimito and citrus fruits are growing at the moment.
HT: How long do you work in the fields?
TR: I work from very early in the morning until 9 AM; and then from 5 PM until it gets dark. My father, brother and children all help me out regularly although I’m the one who does most of the work. I have a lot of love for the earth, plants are living beings and we need to water and care for them. It’s a habit and necessity for me.
HT: Does the cooperative help you create optimum working conditions?
TR: There aren’t decent conditions for working the land. When my husband left for the United States, I had to face the cruel and hard reality of my situation: I was alone. Everything went downhill from there. My brother spoke to me and told me that we couldn’t lose this piece of land, marabu plants were beginning to take over it. I fell into a severe depression which lasted several months; I wasn’t interested in what had been planted or the future of this land. Between all of us, we began to fix the fence because this was at the time that Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit and we were left with nothing. We fixed the planting beds, we weeded. Two of my children decided to work with me but they didn’t see any short-term results, you need a lot of patience to harvest. It doesn’t give us enough to get by, just to eat. If you don’t work this land they can take it away from you, it’s in usufruct, it used to be idle land before.
HT: You had studied agricuture, but there are some things which you forget, where do you get your information from?
TR: I like talking to old people a lot, they haven’t studied very much but they have a lot of experience in farming. They plant using the moon phases, they know when to cut sweet potatoes, how far you need to sow one plant from another. I am also looking for courses, I like to know why you have to sow chicory 90 cm away from the other plant and am not satisfied with a: that’s how all of them are planted.
HT: There is an agro-market not far from your house which sells the same products you harvest. Does it harm your business?
TR: I try to sell for a little less than agro-market prices. Customers like organic crops, what comes directly out of the earth and doesn’t have chemicals. People know me and know that I am very helpful and that I’m not expensive. Everything I sow has grown under the sun. The organoponico used to have a semi-protected cover* which used to regulate the sun’s rays, but when we were hit by the hurricanes, we lost everything. Our crops all grow directly under the sun and that’s why they need a lot of watering.
HT: What do you do in your spare time?
TR: I go to the church twice a week; I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. This faith and trust I have in God is what has helped me to persevere. I go to the fields a lot of the time and ask him to give me strength to finish off this work because it doesn’t only depend on me, there’s a lot of work to do and when I get home I have to keep on doing chores here and there. Thank god for my children who help me out a lot. My sons are 27, 23 and 19 years old and my daughter is 16. But I do everything; I don’t believe there is anything that a woman can’t do.
(*) Semi-protected: a dark mesh net which helps to protect crops from direct sunlight.
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