Shared by Academic Travel Abroad’s Travel Program Managers, Samantha Barrie and Sophie Buzzell.
We were greeted by Isis. She was quick to point out that her name was pronounced Ee-sees, not ISIS. She took one look at our shoes and shook her head. “Do you want plastic bags?” she asked. “Lots of mud and I’m not buying you new shoes.” We were at the Organoponico Vivero Alamar, a remarkable, fully sustainable organic farm, about 20 minutes outside of Havana. Isis proudly took us from one part of the farm to the other, talking a mile a minute as she went. As is the case when doing research and development trips, we were trying to achieve in 20 minutes, what our travelers would do in 2 hours.
“The mission and vision of Organopónico Vivero Alamar is to be a cooperative farm, focusing on agricultural production and services. Dedicated to professionalism, honesty, immediacy, discipline, hospitality and the shared values of commitment to the country and to the individual, Vivero Alamar strives to be a national and global leader in sustainable agriculture” reads their website. But meeting with Isis, we got more of the story, “We did not start an organic farm for some ethical reason,” Isis told us, “we were starving.” She talked about the euphemistic “Special Period” and the need to be able to grow food in a sustainable way. From the hundreds of thousands of worms they use to make the fertilizer, to the multi-colored posts that spring up every several yards throughout the vegetable patches, their practices would make Whole Foods-lovers salivate. Isis explained that rather than use pesticides, they “confuse” the insects by cross-planting. Marigold and basil surround several crops—the scent of each repelling certain insects. In addition, the poles painted with white, blue and yellow stripes were covered with glue. Each kind of insect was attracted to a different color. If they still insisted on moving toward the crops not having been deterred by scent, they would be attracted to the specific colors on the poles and get stuck to them. Deceptively simple, but proven over years of success.
The farm prides itself not just on their growing practices, but how they treat their employees– rather than an 8-hour day, their employees work 7; 6 in the summer. Mothers have flexible work schedules to account for getting their children to school, and there is an on-site barber shop for men and a nail “salon” for women. The reigning worker-guru is in his 80s and is the resident expert on all things medicinal. Anyone who came to the farm with a malady, seeks out this quasi-apothecary who knows how to prescribe and heal with the various plants and herbs grown at the farm. Isis admitted that once he died, they would have no one to replace his vast amount of knowledge.
The farm boasts rows after rows of gorgeous vegetables and herbs. And astoundingly, a lot of the food goes to waste. Why? “Chicken, pork, pork, chicken, pork, chicken, chicken, pork,” said Isis, matter-of-factly. “Cubans do not like vegetables. They will sometimes eat lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes. That’s it. We grow bok choy and cauliflower and they won’t touch it. I had to throw away almost an entire crop of cauliflower that Whole Foods would have bought for $10 each.” There is no culture of vegetables. Meat and rice. And all of the rice has to be imported. The juxtaposition of being truly hungry with being picky about what to eat (especially when these vegetables were amazing) was astounding, and not unlike issues surrounding food and nutrition in the US. I couldn’t help feel that Michelle Obama and Vivero Alamar were ripe for a partnership.
All too quickly, the visit was over. But the farm had made its indelible mark in our minds… and on our shoes (we were warned!).