When I saw that the itinerary for my Cuba trip included a farm visit, I confess I was more interested in the farm lunch we were promised than in the visit itself.
I live in an agricultural state. We’re surrounded by farms and I’ve visited my share of them. I knew what to expect — the usual rusting farm equipment, barn and fields, all enhanced by the faint whiff of manure. I anticipated a pleasant day in the country that would be a nice change from city sightseeing, but no more.
And at first glance, Finca Marta, the farm we visited about a half hour outside of Havana, was just what I expected. As we drove up, I saw a modest farmhouse, a small stone barn, several horses in a paddock and a team of yoked oxen (the Cuban equivalent of a tractor).
It was all very charming and rustic, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Then we met the charismatic farmer, Fernando Funes, and heard about how his farm came to be, and how it works. It was enthralling, like being at our own private TED talk.
Fernando is a dynamic Ph.D. agronomist with a vision for transforming Cuban farming by combining pre-industrial farming methods with modern technology. Finca Marta is his extremely hands-on experimental model, one that is working brilliantly.
The farm is not yet 5 years old, though you’d never know it. When he began, the hilly land it occupies was rocky, covered in invasive weeds and largely infertile. The charming stone buildings looked like they could have been there forever, but were, in fact, newly constructed from rocks pulled out of the fields. As were the raised beds arranged in terraces on the hills, where Fernando now grows about 50 varieties of vegetables.
The well was similarly lined with hand-collected rocks. And what a well it is! About 10 feet wide and more than 50 feet deep, it was dug entirely by hand, without use of a drill. Fernando found one of the few remaining old men in Cuba who remembered how it was done in the past — a remarkably strong and young-looking octogenarian who wielded a pickax alongside him for the seven months it took to reach water.
The creation of this farm using only hand labor and very little capital may seem quixotic, a project for a latter-day hippie with more energy than money.
But Fernando is no hippie. He is an internationally respected expert bent on teaching by doing, showing other farmers who don’t have access to resources what can be done with nothing more than their sweat equity.
His farm may rely on traditional hand technology, but Finca Marta is actually a 21st-century model of sustainability. There’s a lot of sophisticated knowledge at work behind the rusticity.
The raised beds are built for maximum intensive production using the minimum amount of water. The pump for the well water runs on solar power. The horse barn is constructed in such a way that all the manure moves easily into a “biodigester” that, in turn, sends methane gas to the farmhouse stove and creates rich compost for the garden beds. The “fences” consist of closely planted twig-like bushes that leaf out and attract birds and bees.
The bees produce one of the farm’s cash crops. The more than four tons of honey from the 80 hives of stingless bees help pay the farmworkers.
Fernando’s vision is far more socialist than capitalist. He isn’t trying to get rich. His goal is much bigger: to transform Cuban farming by converting others to emulate him. He is trying to reverse a trend. In the past few decades, young Cubanos have been abandoning their struggling small farms to seek easier, better paying employment in the cities.
There’s still plenty of hard, physical labor to be done at Fernando’s farm, with no modern farm equipment, fertilizers or Round-Up in sight. But for his farmhands, at least, the work is rewarding. He plows Finca Marta’s profits into giving his employees raises every year, paying them multiples of what they earned in previous jobs.
With happy workers, land that becomes more fertile by the year, minimal water usage, no herbicides or petroleum-based fertilizers, diversified crops and tiny carbon footprint, Finca Marta is the very definition of successful sustainable agriculture.
It’s a model that could work beyond Cuba, and the world is starting to notice. Fernando now hosts thousands of visitors a year from near and far. (Fidel himself was there a week before us.)
It’s a big little farm. But for me, as you know, the proof is in the eating.
Did I tell you how great his vegetables and honey taste?
After exploring the farm, we sat down and enjoyed its bounty, in a hearty soup cooked for us by Fernando’s lovely wife Claudia on the methane-powered stove in the solar-powered stone house.
It was so good, it almost made me want to come home and dig a well in my backyard.
There is no point in giving you the recipe for ajiaco, the Cuban vegetable soup we ate, as it was chock-full of tropical vegetables that are difficult or impossible to find here. So I’m going to skip the recipe this week. If you are interested in it, you can find several versions online.