By Helen Popper | Reuters
Cuban farmer Saudiel Lazaro wears a broad smile under his wide-brimmed hat as he prepares two young oxen to plow fields newly leased as part of state agricultural reforms.
Reducing the Communist-run island’s heavy dependence on imports of staples like milk, corn and rice is at the heart of a farming shake-up ordered by Raul Castro since he took over as president from his ailing brother Fidel early last year.
In the verdant, palm-dotted countryside south of the capital Havana, farmers say there are signs of change despite frequent shortages of insecticides, fuel and irrigation pipes.
“Things have improved quite a lot. It’s not perfect but it is better ... I’m happy,” Lazaro said in the farmyard of his small-holding near Bejucal, some 20 miles (32 km) from Havana.
He has started farming an extra five hectares (12 acres) over the last year and he hopes to almost double his harvest of sweet potato next year.
“I sell to the state and next year my quota is for 600 quintals (60 tonnes). If I meet that, the rest is mine, but for me it’s better to sell to the state,” he said.
As well as leasing idle state-owned land to successful growers, Castro ordered sharp increases in the amount the state pays for farm goods to encourage higher production.
In Bejucal, dairy farmers now get 35 centavos, or less than two U.S. cents, for a liter of milk, but it is more than three times what they got a year or so ago, and the policy seems to be paying off. They also get vouchers that can be redeemed at hard currency stores where many farm goods are sold.
“Production has gone up a lot because they’re giving the farmers extras like clothing, feed for the cows and wire for fencing,” said municipal milk collector Reinaldo Rodriguez, 62, as he filled buckets from a giant churn loaded on a cart.
Pensioners, who along with children get a state milk ration, queued up nearby, clutching their ration books and plastic bottles ready to be refilled.
Raul Castro, a former army chief who is said to view food self-sufficiency as a matter of national security, launched the program to lease 1.69 million hectares (4 million acres) of fallow state land to private farmers late last year.
Family farms and cooperatives occupy about 20 percent of Cuba’s farmland, but the head of the ANAP small growers’ association, Orlando Lugo, says they supply 60 percent of its rice, 65 percent of milk and 80 percent of beans and corn.
Parcels of vacant state-owned land have already been leased out to 70,000 farmers, Lugo told state media last week.
Castro has also moved to trim bureaucracy, breaking large and inefficient state farms into smaller units and reassigning administrative staff to production roles.
Castro’s concern with food security means he is more open to reforms in agriculture even if they run counter to the principles of the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel.
“Cuba desperately needs to try to improve agricultural output to try to reduce the food import bill, so the economic reforms in agriculture have been a necessary evil,” said William Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida who has researched Cuba.
Cuba imports about two thirds of what it eats and that is straining the cash-strapped country’s trade and current account balances, already hurting due to falling tourism and exports.
Food imports cost the nation of 11 million people $2.2 billion last year, some $700 million of that from its top food supplier, the United States. Much of that was basic goods such as rice and beans which it could easily grow for itself.
However, while state newspapers are full of stories about efficient new cattle feedlots and bumper harvests, and rice and bean production have picked up, government statistics have yet to show an upward turn in overall output. Two severe hurricanes caused severe agricultural losses last year.
Cuba has also been unable to take advantage of a boom in international prices for its main export crop, sugar, with production stagnant at around 1.3 million tonnes.
When Raul Castro became president in February 2008, many Cubans expected more sweeping economic reforms and some have been disappointed at the pace of change.
Cuba’s National Assembly meets on Sunday, but few analysts expect Castro to extend the changes seen in farming to other industries even as the global slowdown aggravates the island’s economic woes.
“New reforms will likely be minor and gradually implemented,” said Paolo Spadoni at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research. “But I think Raul Castro will deepen the reform process in agriculture because overall production is still largely insufficient.”
Even if farmers are able to turn overgrown scrubland into productive fields, a lack of trucks, containers and processing plants risks undermining the efforts and critics say the government needs to implement deeper free-market reforms.
State media carry stories of tomato crops rotting in the fields because no one collected them and the government is trying to decentralize food commercialization as well as production to make it more responsive to sudden gluts and consumer needs.
Patchy supplies of agrochemicals and fertilizer, which officials normally blame on the U.S. trade embargo, have forced Cuban growers to embrace organic techniques and some see the country as a model for ecological agriculture.
On the outskirts of Bejucal, the Romerico Cordero market garden cooperative uses multicolored insect traps to lure bugs away from the neat rows of carrots, onions and radishes. But organic methods are not always enough.
“We do need certain supplies in order to increase productivity,” said Jose Jeoba, 49, head of the market garden, as workers thinned out tomato plants from the rich, red soils.
“What we need the most is manure and fertilizer and insecticides,” he said. “We’ve lost entire crops because we’ve had nothing to put on them.” ($1 = 26.5 Cuban pesos)
(With additional reporting by Milexsy Duran and Marc Frank; Editing by Kieran Murray)