As it is, productivity is low at Cuba’s large, state-run farms where workers lack incentives. Government-supplied rations — mostly imported from the U.S. — provide such staples as rice, beans and cooking oil, but not fresh produce. Importers bring in only what central planners want, so the market doesn’t correct for gaps. And since most land is owned by the state, developers are not competing for the vacant lots that can become plots for vegetables.
Still, experts say the basic idea behind urban farming has a lot of promise.
“It’s land that otherwise would be sitting idle. It requires little or no transportation to get [produce] to market,” said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “It’s good any way you look at it.”
And with fuel prices and food shortages causing unrest and hunger across the world, many say the Cuban model should spread.
“There are certain issues where we think Cuba has a lot to teach the world. Urban agriculture is one of them,” said Beat Schmid, coordinator of Cuba programs for the charity Oxfam International.
Other countries have experimented with urban farming — Cuba’s initial steps were modeled after a green belt surrounding Shanghai. But nowhere has urban farming been used so widely to transform the way a country feeds itself.
“As the global food crisis receives attention, this is something that we need to be looking at,” Murphy said. “Havana is an unlikely, really successful model where no one would expect one to come from.”
Now that Raúl Castro is president, many expect him to expand the program he began as an experiment in the early 1990s.
One of the first plots he opened was the “organoponico” on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street in the ritzy Havana neighborhood of Miramar. The half-block farm — owned by a government agency — is surrounded by apartment buildings and houses, but also offices of foreign companies, a Spanish bank and the South African Embassy.
Long troughs brim with arugula, spinach, radishes and basil, and few of the 20,000 square feet are wasted.
One technician tends compost that serves as natural fertilizer, while another handles natural protection from pests, surrounding delicate spinach shoots with strong-smelling celery to ward off insects. Such measures have ecological benefits but were born of necessity: Neither commercial fertilizer nor herbicide is reliably available.
Three workers tend the crops and another three sell them from a brightly painted stall.
Key to the operation is something once unheard of in Cuba: 80 percent of the profits go straight to the workers’ pockets, providing them with an average of $71 a month.
“Those salaries are higher than doctors, than lawyers,” said Roberto Perez, the 58-year-old agronomist who runs the farm. “The more they produce, the more they make. That’s fundamental to get high productivity.”
Customers say the farm has given them not only access to affordable food, but also a radical change in their cuisine.
“Nobody used to eat vegetables,” said David Leon, 50, buying two pounds of Swiss chard. “People’s nutrition has improved a lot. It’s a lot healthier. And it tastes good.”
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.
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