Agricultural technology is a rapidly changing big business here in the United States. Think drones, cloud-based ag data, genetically edited seeds resistant to drought, and automated milking machines. Cuba has not had the same brisk pace of development over the last 50 years. The recent normalization of relations between the US and Cuba therefore presents tech opportunities for US companies ready to export products, services, and know how.
Before US companies can meet the needs of Cuban farmers, they must know something about their target customers. A recent article by Americas Society/Council of the Americas highlights six differences between US and Cuban farming:
- Cuban urban agriculture was born out of necessity, not choice.
- Farmers can grow food on government land for free in Cuba.
- Cuba still imports most of its food, as discussed in my last post on Cuba.
- It is illegal for private Cuban citizens to sell beef and some shellfish in Cuba.
- The Cuban government gives families rations of pantry staples each month, called “La Libreta.”
- Cuba’s first wholesale market for farmers just opened in 2014.
This is of course just the beginning of what we stand to learn about Cuban agriculture in the coming weeks, months, and years, as relations continue to thaw.
Cuban agriculture has focused on urban, sustainable, and organic farming methods. This is largely due to the unavailability of advanced technology, hybrid seeds, pesticides, and other recent (since the 1960s) developments embraced in the US and EU. A food crisis occurred on the island after the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba in the early 1990s. The dramatic decline in crop production between 1990 and 1994, during which the average Cuban lost 20 pounds, was known as “the Special Period.” In an attempt to recover, the Cuban government eliminated the majority of state farms and turned them into basic units of cooperative production under the “usufruct” system. Cuban peasants did not own the land, but were able to grow crops on government-owned plots and could keep their crops produced in excess of the government quota. These excess crops could be sold, providing a monetary motivator for farmers to find ways to maximize their yield. Cuban farms—often located in the middle of a city in vacant lots and backyards—now rely on crop diversity, biofertilizers, earthworms, compost, and manure to sustain their production. As Soviet oil disappeared, tractors rusted and farming began to look more like the 1800s than the 1990s. This involuntary adoption of farming practices that reduce or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides has led to a sustainable organic farming oasis, albeit one with limitations.
Cuba doesn’t have to abandon its organic small farm model to take advantage of developing agricultural technology. Increased technology can cut costs and save time on any farm. Cuban farmers and consultants could use new technology to analyze weather patterns—drought, El Niño, and hurricanes—and plan accordingly. Seed technology could help Cubans plant more weather-resistant crops. Drip irrigation technology used on South American wine vineyards to conserve precious water resources could be used for other delicate crops grown in Cuba. Ag data companies could help Cuban farmers keep track of manure and compost applications, planting and harvesting schedules, and could provide accurate crop calculations to meet government quotas, leaving more excess for the farmer to sell. Data could be collected and stored first on jump drives or hard drives—much like in the early days of ag data in the US. Later, if and when the internet is reliable and available, the data could be moved to the cloud.
These are just a few ideas of how technology could be integrated into the existing Cuban system. Technology has a place on the farm—small and large, organic and traditional, in Cuba and in the rest of the world.