Family Farm Defenders (Kansas Chapter)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Organiponico: Small Urban Farms Yield Big in Havana

Reposted from August 2008 Edition of Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture Newsletter Urban Grown

International Spotlight: Small Urban Farms Yield Big in Havana
Graduate student and former Kansas City horticulturalist, attorney on raised bed farming in Cuban capital. Maria whittaker

Maria Whittaker is a graduate student in environmental studies at the University of Michigan and the Institute of Tropical Agriculture (INIFAT) in Havana, Cuba, where she is studying intensive urban agriculture.  She was a lawyer and horticulturalist / landscape designer before she found her passion for urban agriculture.  She is researching children's participation in urban agriculture with the goal of alleviating child hunger, malnutrition and poverty in poor communities.  Before she entered the graduate program, Maria was a regular volunteer on the KC Community Farm.

My passion for urban sustainable agriculture as a solution to hunger, malnutrition and poverty led me to Cuba this summer to attend a conference on organic agriculture and to research Cuba’s intensive urban organic practices.  Conventional agriculture with its reliance on the combustion of petroleum and coal for fuel as well as the production of agricultural chemicals is not only expensive, but also one of the biggest contributors to global warming.  As a result, scientists and farmers have been searching for highly productive methods of farming that require fewer inputs.  Nowhere has this been truer than in Cuba.  Faced with a US economic embargo, the country lost 83% of its trade in 1989 when the USSR dissolved, sending the island nation into severe economic downturn.

Today, urban organic agriculture is an important component in reaching the basic nutritional requirements of the Cuban population and Cuba’s continuing recovery from its economic crisis of the 1990s.  The organiponico is the most important, productive technique of this intensive, urban, organic practice.  The organiponico is essentially a raised bed, contained on all sides, approximately 100 feet long by 4 feet wide and 1 foot deep. The beds are built parallel to each other approximately 1.5 feet apart, running north and south if possible.
The organiponico is filled with about 50% high quality organic material such as humus de lombriz (worm castings) or all types of manure which improves the structure and adds nutrition and living organisms to the soil; 25% composted waste such as rice husks or coffee bean shells; and 25% native soil.  In order to conserve the fertility of the soil, no less than 20 pounds of organic material per 10 square feet per year is added to the container.
Depending on the plant, seeds can be sown directly in the container or seedlings can be transplanted.  Cubans plant approximately 56 species of vegetables and fruits in organiponicos in the course of a year, from spices to tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, onions, carrots and lettuce.  By containing the soil, its quality can be maintained indefinitely.  Much less soil is lost through erosion. The contained bed also retains moisture.
Repellant plants such as marigolds, vinca, the flower of Jamaica, basil, and neem trees are planted around the containers at various distances to repel harmful insects such as aphids and various beetles.  Sunflowers and corn are planted around the beds to attract beneficial insects such as lady bugs and lace wings.  Sunflowers and corn are also planted in rows throughout the field to change the flow of pests in the field.  Colored traps, sticky paper or plastic funnel-shaped bottles, usually yellow or blue, are stationed throughout the beds to trap harmful pests.
Biological controls from the neem tree and tobacco plants for example, and predator insects, as well as biofertilizers are used to increase productivity.  The beds are meticulously cleaned of weeds or undesirable plants.
A sprinkler system is used to irrigate the beds instead of the more efficient drip irrigation so as to reach all four rows of plants in the bed.  Gravel or tubes in the beds provide drainage.  Organiponicos can be partially protected by a shade screen or completely protected by a metal screen house or not protected at all.  Companion planting and crop rotation are practiced.  At the entrance of every agricultural unit is a place for workers to disinfect their feet and hands to increase sanitation.
Good nutritious soil and adequate water are the basis for healthy, resistant plants and are key to the organiponico in Cuba.  The organiponico has increased food productivity in Cuba enormously without a concomitant increase in the use of fossil fuels.  In one year, Alamar Organiponico in Havana, where I volunteer, produced 44 pounds of produce per 10 square foot, a very high yield.
Furthermore, as one experienced farmer movingly pointed out, Cuban farmers may not be as productive as they were using conventional agriculture, but the costs in terms of energy consumption, are much less.  Less, too, are the costs to society in terms of adding to global warming and other forms of pollution that threaten to destroy the life-support system we all depend on.
For more information on urban and organic agriculture in Cuba, see Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba, Fernando Funes, Luis Garcia, Martin Burque, Nilda Perez, Peter Rossett, 2002, Institute for Food and Development Policy.  Agriculture in the City, A Key to Sustainability in Havana Cuba, Maria Caridad Cruz, Roberto Sanchez Medina, 2003 International Research Development Center.

You can email Maria at


  1. SPECIAL Announcement:

    From CUBA to the U.S. SEPTEMBER: 16th – 19th
    NEEM host Dr. Fernando Funes with our NC Partners at NC State University, Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Raleigh; Rural Advancement Foundation (RAFI) in Pittsboro/Chapel Hill, Carolina Farm Stewardship members and NEEM in Durham. This is a 5 State, multi-organization collaboration with SOCLA, University of Michigan, Delaware Department of Agriculture, Vermont and VCI. We all look forward to this cooperative effort that has brought this esteemed expert and friend to the United States for knowledge exchange, promotion of Agroecology & the Cuban model. Look for his schedule in your area. North Carolina schedule for public presentation posted soon for September 17th & 18th.
    Upcoming 2014 Delegations:


    Colleagues: NEEM has an MOU with ACTAF. U.S. citizens should contact us for information on “Legal” travel to this event. However you decide to travel you shouold make this event! URBAN AGRICULTURE, COOPERATIVISM AND AGROECOLOGICAL RESEARCH Visit to agroecological farms CamPics 003 150x112 CUBA GO!and historical sites of the Havana, Villa Clara and Matanzas or,
    Visit to agroecological farms in Artemisa, Pinar del Río, Mayabeque and Matanzas.
    A “Cause Related” delegation arrives in Havana on Friday 10/17 with orientation and itinerary review in Havana. 10/18 – 10/20 – tour the Provinces (we will provide a baseline itinerary) with overnight in Santa Clara (Urban/coop tour) or the alternate (Agroeco West) in Vinalles; winding our way from each to Varadero, Matanzas on the 20th for the conference Varadero from 10/21 – 10/24. Return to Havana on 10/24 for two days in Havana, depart Sunday the 26th. Additional post conference four day field study on farms of our friends is optional and departs 10/29. Price includes Casas, pre and post itinerary, all conference fees, visa, 24/7 boots & light ground. An Agricultural Delegation with an Agricultural ground breaking organization at our partners conference. It doesn’t get any better than that!
    $1900 Optional post conference: $2800

    1. Awesome. Drooling over this. I know it will be absolutely wonderful