October 20, 2009 | General

Compost Integral To Food Supply (Cuba)

BioCycle October 2009, Vol. 50, No. 10, p. 42
Highly productive farms rely on composting for necessary nutrients.
Jenny Bloom

CUBA’S agricultural system has been reinvented over the past several decades. With the Soviet Union’s support, the country’s food production underwent industrialization similar to the U.S. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and combined with U.S. embargos, Cuba was forced by necessity to develop more sustainable agricultural systems. Without the standard petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba began composting.
When Cuban industrial agriculture began to fail, the country’s large farms were dissolved, and land was redistributed to families. The government encouraged localized food production, and rural people began relocating to the urban centers. Although a new, highly productive food system was eventually achieved, the island went through a rough 10 years known as the Perìodo Especial, where the average Cuban lost 30 pounds and 60 percent of the country’s beef cattle died of starvation.
Cooperative farm models were organized, and education became focused on sustainable agriculture. Small to mid-size biodiverse farms were built, utilizing intensive growing practices to produce enough food for the local community. Composting was used to produce fertilizers for the crops. Soon, the urban gardens were able to provide enough food for communities, schools, orphanages, etc.
The most obvious example of this success is the city of Havana, the nation’s capital. Settled in 1514, Havana is a densely populated, European-designed walled city. Farms ring the urban core and are devoted to intense food and compost production. Biodiverse planting beneath tented shade cloth is normal, in plots of a half-hectare (1.2 acres) or more. Farming families or cooperatives manage the gardens; food is grown for the city’s needs.
Due to the Caribbean climate, material composted in static windrows can reach a mostly finished status in about 50 days. Typically, these windrows are formed in the wells between tree crops (banana, mango, coconut, papaya).
However, vermicomposting is the most common composting method in Cuba. Bins are typically constructed of plaster, with white washed walls and gravity fed collection tanks. The worms are fed any and all organics produced on the farm: crop residues and bed cullings, remnants from value-added processing (mostly pickling or drying), household food scraps and manures.
Dones Farm
In Matanzas Province, Fernando Dones farms a 40-hectare tract (99-acre), fertilizing the land exclusively with composted materials originating on or near his farm. Formerly a banana plantation, the farm is a model of permaculture where Dones practices biodynamic methods. With a background in chemical engineering, and research done at the Indio Hatuey experimental station at the University of Matanzas, he has developed a system of spraying organic amendments brewed at the farm.
The farm has a manure slurry tank, working on a 15-day fermentation cycle, with manure supplied from an adjacent cattle farm. A 30 by 100-foot worm casa (house) with 3-foot high white washed stucco walls, contains several windrows with worms. A spray watering system is installed under a palm-thatched roof. The worms are mostly fed manure, with a top dressing of vegetable waste from the farm. The worm casa doubles as a bulb and root storage building, with burlap curtains that roll down for protection from the sun.
The worm castings and manure slurry provide enough fertilizer for the whole farm, tilled into the soil as an amendment, and sprayed on the crops in the form of compost tea.
El Japonés Farm
El Japonés Farm, run by Olga Oye and her 24-year-old son Alex, is located in Havana City proper. It feeds the surrounding neighborhood, school, orphanage and military unit, in addition to the Oye family. Rabbits are raised for meat, generating manure for the vermicomposting system. Worms are housed in three block-walled worm bins, each 4 by 12 feet, and kept beneath a tented shade cloth. The worms are also fed vegetable scraps. A wooden slat bin is used for composting any overflow organics.
The finished compost is sufficient fertilizer for the one-hectare (2.5-acre) farm. Olga Oye brews the worm castings into a tea, used in a drip irrigation system in her hot house for vegetables. The vermicompost is also used in the garden’s raised beds, which are 50 percent topsoil, 25 percent worm compost and 25 percent mushroom and food waste compost.
In many ways, Cuban farms are a model of efficiency where farm residuals are returned to the soil without utilizing machinery and workers are an integral part of the structure, creating employment.

Jenny Bloom is a Recycling Educator for Charleston County, South Carolina, where she frequently teaches composting workshops.

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