Cuba: Challenges and opportunities

A group of Florida agricultural leaders got a firsthand look at Cuban agriculture on a recent trip to the island country 90 miles off of Florida’s coast. The five-day trip by alumni of the Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources provided the 28 participants with a better perspective of the state of the industry in Cuba.

The itinerary included meetings with key Cuban officials and tours of farms and a market. Each host was friendly and accommodating, and the group learned a great deal about their challenges in producing crops.

Both Cuban and Florida producers will face challenges and opportunities if and when trade resumes between Cuba and the United States, said Lisa Lochridge, FFVA’s director of public affairs, who went on the trip. Lochridge is a member of WLI’s Class VII.

“Florida producers are right to be concerned over resumption of trade. Cuba produces many of the same crops as we do in the same growing season. That said, it likely will be years before Cuba has the resources, infrastructure and systems necessary to be a significant market threat for Florida,” she said. “In addition, there remains the critical issue of harmful pests and diseases coming into Florida from Cuban products. Much work will need to be done to protect our industry from any more threats than we are already dealing with.”

It was the first educational trip arranged for graduates of the WLI leadership program. Alumni from six of the nine classes that have graduated so far participated. The timing was good for Cuba as a destination, said Dr. Hannah Carter, program director.

“As long as I’ve been director of the WLI, I’ve had an interest in taking an alumni trip there, but for years it was not an option.  As soon as it became a reality, I was thrilled at the group of alums who signed up and that we could work with individuals and groups who had established relationships within the country,” she said. “The trip exceeded my expectations.  It was a tremendous opportunity and I think back to a goal of Dr. Gene Trotter, which was when WLI alumni were in the room, they would have collective knowledge of the world. Now we can add our 90-mile neighbor to the south to our collective knowledge base.”

Fundamental challenges

The group visited the UBPC del la Empresa Citricos Ceiba, a state-owned company founded decades ago to grow citrus for Havana.

Although the group expected to see a poor country, the level of poverty and decaying infrastructure was surprising to many. Decades of neglect and lack of maintenance on buildings and roads have taken their toll. Although some renovation was evident, beautiful Spanish colonial buildings in Old Havana were crumbling. Dilapidated multistory buildings that looked like they should have been vacant instead were full of families, with drying laundry fluttering out the windows. Scattered patches of vibrant color – vivid pink bougainvillea and brightly painted doors and fences – were a stark contrast to the dilapidation.

“It was a great experience, and I would travel back there in a heartbeat,” said Emma Reynolds Ezell of Reynolds Farms in Lake Placid. “It wasn’t what I was expecting. Sure, they’re still ‘stuck’ in the 1950s with the old cars and such, but there were more tourists than I was expecting to see.”

Social scientist Dr. Rafael Hernandez laid the groundwork for the trip with an overview of the history of agriculture and economics in Cuba.  The economic recovery since the fall of the Soviet Union has been “slow and not enough,” Hernandez said. Cuba’s fundamental challenge is that the country can’t produce its own food. He outlined reforms that are beginning to take place in agriculture. As recently as 10 years ago, 95 percent of workers were employed by the government. But as reforms occur (the government calls it “updating socialism”), the non-state sector is expanding. Most state farmland has been leased to cooperatives, and 27 percent of the labor force is in the private sector, especially agriculture and the service industry, Rafael said.

On Cuba’s National Farmer Day, the group spent the morning with Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero. During a wide-ranging discussion of the state of Cuban agriculture, Rodriguez Rollero conceded the years since the collapse of the Soviet bloc have been difficult. Eighty percent of Cuba’s foreign trade disappeared in 18 months, including animal feed, fertilizer, chemicals, tractors and parts, and oil.

The minister was asked what guarantees the country could give that the produce it would export to the U.S. would be free of pests and plant diseases. He gave no specifics, nor did he outline any plans to establish an inspection program should trade resume. “Pests and diseases go both ways,” he pointed out. “You have serious companies dedicated to that and USDA. We have to keep working on that.” However, he pointed out that during U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s March visit to Cuba, the two officials signed an agreement allowing 22 industry-funded research and promotion programs and 18 Marketing Order organizations to conduct authorized research and information exchange activities with Cuba.

Rodriguez Rollero discussed the devastating effect of citrus greening on the country’s industry. Production has fallen from 800,000 tons of grapefruit and oranges to about 250,000 tons. “We haven’t been able to solve the problem, just as you haven’t,” he said. “It’s been terrible.”

When asked what message he would convey to Florida farmers, he said producers should “work together to exchange our experiences. You have experience; we do, too…. We should exchange knowledge and know-how. When the blockade is lifted, farmers’ organizations should work together not to be competitors. We have to look for niche markets… We need your help. That’s a future vision we should have.”

Before the group departed, he proudly boasted of the country’s tobacco industry. “Cuban cigars don’t cause cancer,” he proclaimed. “They cause envy.”

Citrus greening and urban farms

The group spent an evening with Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Charge d’Affaires to Cuba, at his grand home discussing the U.S. move toward normalizing relations with the country.

Interestingly, this is DeLaurentis’ third post to Cuba. He served there in the 1990s before the fall of the Soviet Union, and again during the high-profile 2000 court case over the return of 6-year-old Elian Gonzales to his father in Cuba. Observers say that DeLaurentis’ experience will serve the U.S. well as it seeks to rebuild diplomatic relations with Cuba.

DeLaurentis discussed how the lifting of the embargo would play out if it’s passed by Congress. He also listened to and acknowledged the concerns of our group over Cuban competition with Florida producers and invasive pests and diseases that might be introduced to our state from Cuban exports.

Brant Schirard, president of Schirard Citrus and a member of WLI Class 2, said the trip came at a pivotal point in Cuba’s history.

“It was obvious not much has changed since Fidel Castro and his regime gained control and solidified Cuba into a communist country,” he said. “Although seemingly happy, it seems as if much of the population almost has been frozen in time with very restricted communication and interaction with countries that do have trade relations with Cuba. As the people of Cuba get more information about the world around them, it will be very interesting to see if and how the Cuban government and its people will transition into more normal relations with the U.S. and other countries.”

The devastation of Cuba’s citrus industry was the focus of a visit with Jose Pinera, veteran technical director of the UBPC del la Empresa Citricos Ceiba, a state-owned company founded decades ago to grow citrus for Havana. Production there has dropped from 500,000 trees to just 200,000 as a result of greening. Still, Pinera was sanguine. “We thought it was the end of the world,” he said, “but we are no longer terrified.”

Pinera described the farm’s greening management program: pruning, spraying the foliage at intervals, and new denser plantings with clean trees. The group toured an infected grove that was flushing. When asked about food safety, he said the operation has a system in place but gave no specifics.

An insect lab on an urban farm.

A father-daughter team led the group on a tour of their lush urban farm in Alamar that uses only organic production practices. It produces and sells a variety of vegetables and tropical fruit, from lettuce to bok choy to mangoes. Not a single power tool is used on the farm – everything is done manually. Workers use horses and an ox with carts to move product. The growers discussed several challenges, including the Cuban people’s disinterest in eating fresh vegetables and the lack of transportation and refrigeration that would allow them to sell their produce to local hotels for tourists.

They group also traveled into the countryside to Vinales, a verdant valley about two hours outside of Havana. At a local tobacco farm, their host showed off his drying barn filled with tobacco leaves and demonstrated the art of hand-rolling cigars. He explained that he owned his own land, and business apparently is booming because he’s building a second barn. Many in the group left with bundles of hand-rolled cigars purchased at a price of 10 for 10 pesos.

Many in the group relished the chance to see the country before American interests start to have a bigger presence. “I was glad that there were no Starbucks on the corners yet,” Ezell said. “It’s going to be interesting moving forward with relations between the U.S. and Cuba over the next few years… It was great to feel like one of the few people to see the country ‘as it was’ before all the changes really start affecting the country. It’s definitely something that my millennial generation will have to watch and will get to be a part of.”

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