U of A students head to Cuba for lessons in organic farming

(Edmonton) Organic produce has become a popular choice among many Canadians. However, as the students who embarked on this year’s agro-tour to Cuba discovered, the agricultural shift to organic produce is sometimes due to necessity.

Students learned first hand, through volunteering at various farms around the island, how the Cuban farmers maximize agricultural outputs without the use of the pesticides and machinery commonly used by their industrial counterparts.

“It’s really amazing how much they accomplish with so little,” said third-year student Kelsey Reimer, who is studying for a bachelor of science degree in agriculture. “Absolutely nothing gets wasted there. They find uses for everything.”

The students, who are studying agro-ecology in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, took part in the tour in January as a part of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences’ continuing efforts to give students the chance to marry real-world applications with their academic curricula. The trip, say organizers, is only one of the many ways students are encouraged to participate in outreach opportunities while attending university.

The agricultural initiatives in the island nation have shifted to a predominantly rural, organic structure in order to compensate for the lack of resources necessary for large-scale farming. Jane King, a professor with the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science who organized the tour, said that the Cuban government has been forced to restructure its agricultural initiatives since the disbanding of the Soviet Union.

“Cuba was supported largely by the USSR,” said King. “They provided them with cheap oil and bought their sugar at roughly four times the market price. When the Soviet bloc fell apart at the end of the 1980’s, all of that support was gone.”

Traditionally, Cuba had imported the majority of its produce, utilizing their agricultural terrain for the production of tobacco and sugar cane, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain, they suddenly lacked the financial ability to purchase commodities from other countries.

With food shortages approaching critical levels, the government opted to decentralize food production, establishing many small-scale organic farms within both rural and urban areas in order to reduce spoilage and minimize transportation requirements. These “organoponocos”, which now provide Cubans with over 90 per cent of their produce, use a variety of agro-ecological techniques, such as mixed cropping, crop rotation and natural pest controls in lieu of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

According to Lloyd Dosdall, associate professor of agricultural entomology, the practices learned by the group could have practical applications in large-scale farming here in Alberta.

“The impact of using less insecticide can be enormous,” said Dosdall. “For example, farmers might spend up to 11 dollars an acre treating canola for insect pests. So if we can bypass that input cost, farmers are bound to save economically, and at the same time make the whole industry more competitive and more sustainable.”

The students from the U of A who participated in the tour took the opportunity to learn the various techniques used in organic farming, and despite the heat and the physical demands of the volunteer work they performed, expressed appreciation for the insight into the Cuban culture that the experiences afforded them.

“We did a lot of weeding and packaging soil,” said Caren Jones, a second-year environmental and conservation sciences student. “Some of us went to the dairy farm and fed the calves. Then at our second hotel, we picked up all of the garbage off the beach, but it never felt like work. I really enjoyed being a visitor and not a tourist.”

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