Beyond rum, nightlife, and cigars: lessons from the land of Cuba

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Ah, Cuba. An island so close, yet worlds away. Beautiful, mysterious, ancient, enthralling. Most people travel there to experience the nightlife, rum, and cigars. To see the old cars and snap pictures of crumbling buildings. I went on a different mission. My father is from Cuba. He spent his childhood summers on a farm in the region of Camagüey. My hope was to touch the soil, walk beneath the palm trees, smell the land right after the rain. I longed to connect with the place and people that had shaped him, and that, by consequence have shaped me, as well.

My daughter, Emilia, who managed trips to Cuba in a former job, plotted out our itinerary. We visited a total of four farms, with our family farm trip smack dab in the middle of our week. Each farm taught me a unique lesson about ingenuity, resourcefulness, and purpose. I share these lessons with you because, like seeds, ideas and impressions can only make an impact when scattered and planted.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned from the land of Cuba:

1. Desperation is the mother of invention. Our first farm visit was to an urban farm/garden, known as an organopónico. Our guide, Isis, explained to us how it had been set up during the "special period, the período especial, a time of crisis in Cuba shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart and could no longer be relied upon for imports of food or goods. Basically, Cuba was left to its own devices. How to feed the people? There were no chemicals, fertilizers, or tools, really, to farm land, let alone land in the city. But the people had to find a way to feed themselves.

 Isis, giving me the tour of her URBAN farm!

Isis, giving me the tour of her URBAN farm!

Little by little (or pasito a pasito, as the song says) they learned the ropes: the power of compost and lombricultura (worms), the importance of growing crops people would actually eat--the Cuban diet is very heavy on meat, rice, and beans. Vegetables are often seen as decorative only--and a need to find people actually winning to work. Isis explained that there is very little incentive to get your hands dirty and apply yourself to intensive farm labor if you know you are going to get paid regardless of how much or how little you work. Isis, however, is clearly a self-starter; she admitted to us that she loses track of time because she loves farming so much.

 Me and the mint on the organopónico.

Me and the mint on the organopónico.

2. Learning is critical, inside and outside the classroom. At a working farm, outside of Havana, we met a man who had attended a university to study agroecology, agroecología, and had returned to the farm to put all that he had learned into practice. Mikael told us that there is a big difference between what is learned in the classroom and what is learned in the field. We need both--what the books and the earth teach us. Mikael expounded on their variety of vegetables, and how their farm went organic, not out of principle but for practical reasons. Today, the farm primarily sells its produce to high-end restaurants in Havana for chefs who are familiar with the vegetables and know how to prepare them. But Mikael's knowledge and skill is put to good use on the farm and when he is on the road, lecturing and sharing about the best way to work the land and serve the people. His lessons are available to all who are willing to listen.

 Yes, Mikael's farm even had an apiary---bees!

Yes, Mikael's farm even had an apiary---bees!

 A big hunk of their homemade cheese!

A big hunk of their homemade cheese!

3. There is less scarcity on a farm. Honestly, Cuba is a place with a lot of privations, scarcity, and limitations. There are lots of rules, and many related to what can be sold and purchased. Food in particular can be hard to come by. Often a certain food will go missing for an unpredictable period of time. People know it's back when they see a long line outside of a store that wraps around the corner. On my dad's cousin's farm, this kind of food insecurity is not an issue. There is an abundance of produce and livestock. Among other foods, Manolo grows pineapple, coconut, mamey, avocado, mango, chirimoya, and he raises pigs, lambs, cattle. Now, there is a rule in place that prohibits the slaughter of cattle, even if it's your own. But other than that, if you grow it, you can consume it. This is not to say that life is easy for Manolo and Alexis, his wife. They live alone. A number of their children have moved to the U.S. to improve their economic situation. And since visas can be difficult to acquire (limited staffing at the U.S. embassy requires Cubans to travel to a third country for a visa interview), traveling to see them isn't always an option. So, there is scarcity, still.

 Manolo, showing me around. (And don't the cows look content?!)

Manolo, showing me around. (And don't the cows look content?!)

4. The farm is key for thriving! José Antonio Casimiro, the owner and manager of the Finca del Medio, impressed me as a man who was as vibrant as the land he was cultivating. His farm was 100% sustainable, organic and prosperous--in every sense of the word. Casimiro began implementing permaculture techniques before he had ever even heard of the term. And his family farm has flourished as a result. When he first got started, in the early 1990s, Casimiro farmed in the conventional manner that his father had used. But he found no joy in it. It gradually dawned on him that cooperating with Mother Nature was more exciting and demanded more creativity on his part, though, admittedly, it had its challenges, as well. His farm was overflowing with fruit and vegetables, including coconuts, tomatoes, raspberries, pineapple, radishes, malanga, and livestock galore. But his greatest joy seemed to come from innovations he had put into place around the property. He had designed a bio-gas system, where the manure and waste from the animals produce electricity for the house. He built a multi-purpose oven and stove for cooking, that also provided heat for a type of thermal bath that he had set up for relaxation and play for the family. And, speaking of family, his farm was brimming with them, as well! His mother, young adult children, significant others, and their offspring live in and around the place. All in all, there was a palpable sense of self-sufficiency and pride in what they had accomplished together. Not to mention joy, and, of course, good health.

 Manolo and some members of his beautiful family (including his mom with her cup of cappuccino)!

Manolo and some members of his beautiful family (including his mom with her cup of cappuccino)!

I love the fact that each farm had its own charm and lessons to impart. Stay tuned as I travel in the weeks and months ahead and highlight more lessons learned. And, please share with me what you've been gleaning from the land that you live on or visit!

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Hilda Labrada Gore is a podcast professional who helps holistic health practitioners launch their own shows! She is also the host and producer of the Wise Traditions podcast, sponsored by the Weston A. Price Foundation for wise traditions in food, farming, and the healing arts. She is an integrative nutrition health coach, a fitness professional, and the DC Metro Regional Director for Body & Soul Fitness. She lives in D.C. with her husband, Mitch, their children, and their cat and dog.