12.17.09, 10:26 AM EST
* Farming is focus of Raul Castro's tentative reforms
* Private farms leased state land in bid to boost output
* Cuba fighting to reduce heavy reliance on food imports
By Helen Popper
BEJUCAL, Cuba (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 from Havana.
He has started farming an extra five hectares 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's) 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
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 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
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 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
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
"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)
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