He welcomed us with a smile, fresh-squeezed juice and snacks. Before I really fully comprehended who this remarkable man, Dr. Fernando Funes Monzote, was, I noticed the stack of bee supers. Shortly thereafter, listening to this powerfully persuasive—and brilliant—young man talk, I realized the connection.
He was taking advantage of millions of “workers”—bees—to harvest nectar from the many surrounding fields of wild flowers and have them turn it into honey which he then sold and turned into desperately needed cash. The bees, of course, worked for next to nothing, simply a share of the “loot” and some careful management of their basic needs.
Bees and honey could be a key part of the model for what’s next for Cuban agriculture too! If Fernando has his way, and he is, as I said, powerfully persuasive, more and more small, organic farms will be using talented and hard-working local Cubans to grow food for the nearby urban centers. The farms, in turn, will benefit the local, rural communities, many of which are now lost and with too little purpose. For too long much of Cuba’s food has been imported leaving the country vulnerable to the kind of crisis they faced in the 1990s when support from the Soviets collapsed. During the consequent “special period,” the average Cuban lost 30% of their body weight and hunger was a daily companion to most.
Fernando looked around and saw a lot of land that is under-utilized, land he has proven, with hard work and the support of workers, can be brought back into production of good food. He’s been getting some great press for these ideas. He beamed to tell us he had had a long, afternoon of discussing farming with Fidel the week before. He shared his beliefs that the old kinds of large, centralized agriculture management schemes did not work and argued they could best be replaced with smaller, cooperative farms. He indicated Fidel listened closely. The land he has been farming now for three years is incredibly productive and he has his eyes on helping others to get started in surrounding areas.
The next big piece of the complex farming puzzle is developing the markets for products—something we’ve seen our local Vermont farmers struggle with. How does it start? One old car full of greens at a time! Meanwhile he and his crews make compost and collect water and nurture row after row of beautiful greens.
The bees are keeping busy too and the honey helps to keep the balance sheet heading toward positive. A great deal remains to be done if Fernando’s dreams are to come true, and the possibilities of failure are constant and immense.
And Fernando’s wife (below holding the dog), like the bees, is essential to the success of the farm and their larger vision. Clearly he relies on her for inspiration and support and as a reality check to balance the relentless enthusiasm he thrives on. They are a great team that has already made a difference with their 20-acre farm called Finca Marta.
Fernando has invited Michelle Obama to visit. I hope she will, and I hope she will bring her husband with her because these are people the Obamas need to meet if they are to truly understand where Cuba is headed. Plus they’d enjoy a delicious, healthy lunch in the shade with the bees buzzing around some wonderful people.
I say “thumbs up” for much more friendly relationships with Cuba, and thank you, Mr. President, for having the courage to take this next step!