Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Santiago & Plagas

Kat and I are still working in the Plagas department, and there seems to be no end to the new information that Norma is passionately teaching us. Among many things, we've learned how the micorrizas (fungi which aid plant growth) are cultivated on the farm, and how Norma ferments and disperses different plant extracts at different times of the day to increase their efficiency. However, one of the things which has interested me most over the past few days was talking to Norma and learning about her first few years at the organopónico. The organopónico was founded in January 1997 and two years later in 1999 Norma joined the small work force. Then, the farm was much smaller and only occupied the space of the medicinal plants department (pictured below). 

With only five workers employed the first year, outputs were obviously lower than they are now but residents from the surrounding area would still flock to the organopónico to see what was for sale. For a while, seeds were sewn in old beer cans collected from the community and without a car to move any equipment everything was done from the seat of a bicycle. Bit by bit the organopónico grew to what it is today. There was considerable aid from a German agricultural program named German Agro Action (Welthungerhilfe:, which helped add to the infrastructure of the farm. Norma has an old photo of the organopónico which hopefully we'll be able to see and compare to our version of the organopónico. Everything seems so established now in a unique rhythm making it difficult to imagine that is was ever anything different. 

In other news, Kat and I were in Santiago last weekend to check out the east coast of the country, see the carnaval, the moncada barracks, and visit two other Canadian students working on SFD internships. Matt and Elaine are engineering students (Elaine just graduated) from the University of New Brunswick who have been living in Santiago for two months working at the university focusing on medical imaging technology. I know very little about both engineering and medicine so I can't explain in any detail what they are doing, but it was fantastic to meet up with some other Canadian interns and to talk about everything that's been happening over the past few months. Pictured below the four of us are in a tiny book/photo/record store in Santiago, which conveniently had a Canadian flag on the wall. 

Kat, Matt, Elaine and I in Santiago

We didn't see too much of the carnaval, but what we did see was a giant street party. There were trucks stationed at various spots along the carnaval route which were really just giant kegs filled with beer. Vendors walked around selling hats, and cups for beer from the truck-kegs while small amusement park rides were located just up side streets entertaining the kids. The four of us also walked around the Moncada barracks where 60 years ago Fidel Castro and 138 others staged their first revolutionary attack. However, while the revolutionaries were outnumbered and quickly defeated, the attack did give Fidel his pedestal to deliver his famous speech "History Will Absolve Me" and is seen as the beginning of the revolution.

While in Santiago Katherine and I had to frantically look for a place to stay when our reservations at a casa fell through. We ended up wandering around Santiago knocking on doors that had the casa particular sign (Casa particulars are a bit like B&B's). However, due to the carnaval and celebrations for the 26th of July everywhere seemed to be full and it was getting late. Luckily for us however, we were rescued by the kindness of a woman who would not let us leave her casa (which was already full with tourists) until she had called all of her friends and had found us a place to stay. We then stayed with Tatica (pictured below) one night, and Marbelis (pictured below) the second night. These two women were some of the sweetest women I have met yet in Cuba. Marbelis even called our Cuban Madre, Lily, back in Havana to tell her when we were on our bus, and when we were expected in Havana. If you're ever going to be staying in Santiago send me a message and I'll send you the contact info. 

Kat and Tatica
Tatica and I
Marbelis and Kat
Marbelis and I
In the end it was a fantastic adventure and it has left me looking forward to this Sunday when Elaine comes to visit us in Havana!

More Photos:

Ladybug containers which specify the amount of larvae and adults in each. (Larger storage containers in background) 
One of the many painted wooden blocks that decorate the department showing the various types of ladybugs, and other beneficial insects. 
Pure plant extracts (Nim tree, Tobacco etc) that are diluted and used as pesticides.
From left to right: Roxana, Kat, Norma, and I
Norma showing us how she samples Nematode levels in the fields.  
One sample from a field. (Small samples are taken at 5m intervals diagonally across a field then mixed and analyzed. The fields are tested once a year.)

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Plagas Department

We’ve started our rotation in the Plagas department, where we are learning how to fight pesticides using natural predators. Norma and Roxana head this small department of four. Two men also work in the department and are responsible for spraying the plants with natural pest repellents, but I have yet to meet them. Also working closely with us is Nelly. Nelly is in charge of a natural protected area close to the organopónico so she sets up office with the women in the Plagas department. I haven’t gotten a chance yet to ask her exactly what she does but I will soon!
Norma and Nelly are pictured below (Roxana was away for the day)

Nelly on the left, and Norma on the Right
Our days in the plagas department start with an hour of caracol (snail) hunting back out in the fields with Alexi, Pedro, Marie Sol and all the guys in the Hortilizas department. Most days we're joined by Elsa and Mabel from the casa de posturas and it's always nice to talk with them again. It’s amazing all the tiny bugs you can find in the top inch of soil in the garden beds. Yes, there are hundreds of snails, but there are also crickets, ants, millipedes, potato bugs and spiders (thankfully they are fairly small). 
After this, we have been shadowing Norma around the farm. Norma is the most enthusiastic teacher I have encountered yet on the farm. She seems genuinely excited to try and cram as much information about her department into our heads over the few weeks she has us. She’s already begun to plan out activities for us so we can better understand the processes they use to control the pests. She adamantly expressed however, the changing nature of their job. One year the pests might ‘magically’ be gone, or present at such a low level that they’re not a worry. Other times, like this summer with the snails, the pest levels can be so high that entire crops are destroyed days after they are planted. She also added that they never want to completely eradicate a pest since without a pest present in the fields, there won’t be any natural predators either. In short, the good bugs go where the bad bugs are, so to have the good you have to have the bad as well.

The small office for this department is filled with natural extracts from many different plants including tobacco plants, and nim trees which can be watered down and used as natural pesticides, and on the far wall there are books on medicinal plants, toxic plants and of course insects. A poster on the wall shows pests and their corresponding predators, and beneath it on a small table are two microscopes that Norma and Roxana use to identify the various insects they collect from the field.

Today, unfortunately as Kat wasn’t feeling well I went to work alone, but I was quickly joined by three other students. Together, Cecilia from Colombia, Pamela from Mexico and Mateo from France, Roxana and I went around the farm collecting ladybugs and as many aphids as we could from the mint and green bean plants. Ladybugs eat 100 aphids a day, and their larvae can eat between 200 and 300 a day, so in order to sustain our captured ladybugs we had to find a lot of aphids. We then placed the ladybugs and aphids in the department’s containers, and I assume soon we’ll be refilling these containers with new aphids.

This department is going to be quite information intensive, so over the next two weeks or so I’m going to take it all in before posting again. Below are some of the photos I’ve got from the department so far.

The entrance to the department. Roughly translates to: Laboratory for breeding beneficial insects.

Norma shows us how the corn stalks surrounding the fields attract pests away from the crops.
A container used to breed natural pests
In other news, this past week my family came to visit! It was incredible to get to see them for a while, to take advantage of the buffet breakfasts at the hotel, and to play tour guide for a week. I miss them already!

Here are my beautiful parents in Viñales. Mary on the left, Bill on the right. Happy early anniversary!!
Daniel and I in Viñales

A little unrelated, but this is a gorgeous sunset we saw from the Malecon
Daniel, Mom & Dad in Viñales
My Cuban Family (missing Dacio) and my Canadian Family
From left to right: Chino, Bill, Lily, Mary, Daniel

Sunday, 7 July 2013


Kat, Kat's mother and brother, Sue and Chris, and I spent the past weekend in Viñales. Easily one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Cuba, Viñales is a small town west of Havana in the province of Pinar del Río. I would have to recommend this town to geology lovers in particular. While my knowledge of geology is limited, I can tell you that the beautiful mountains in Viñales are called "Limestone Karsts" and can also be found throughout Asia.  The woman we were staying with, Mirtha, set us up with one of her friends who took us on a walking tour of the countryside. He led us through farmers' fields, over and under barbed wire fences, and all the while we got an excellent view of mountains and tobacco fields.  Due to the recent rain, our walk quickly became muddy but once your feet are covered in mud you stop worrying about getting dirty and just enjoy the squishy sensation.

We toured tobacco fields and learned a little about the cultivation process. After spending three months growing in the fields, the tobacco leaves are hung in the drying houses for another three months. It's obligatory for the farmers to then sell 90% of their crop to the state and the remaining 10% they cure and roll themselves to sell to the public. To cure the tobacco each farmer combines the leaves with his own particular mixture of water, rum, honey, pineapple, guava and other fruits to add flavor. The way they cure the tobacco diminishes the amount of nicotine in the cigars. The majority of the nicotine in the plant is actually contained within the stems which are not used in the cigars but are instead are used as a natural pesticide.  One of the most photogenic farmers, Orestes (who said he was named after Saint Orestes) gave us a quick demonstration of how the cigars are hand rolled. Orestes and his son offered us coconuts filled with coconut water, rum and honey, which we drank together in a small cabin on top of a hill. During our time with Orestes and his son, a storm rolled in and we were happily trapped there for close to an hour. Some farmers from nearby fields came round to take shelter, while one rode off on his horse to get a bottle of rum. He came trotting back shortly and we all shared a couple more drinks before heading back home along the muddy path.

Here are a couple photos from our walk:

A tobacco drying house 
A bull and the approaching storm
Tiny tobacco seeds
I kind of fell in love with this little guy. 
Just a little muddy

Crawling under barbed wire

Kat and I

Kat, Chris and Sue

Our delicious coconut drinks

Orestes - the most photogenic farmer ever.

After the storm

Our walk home.

We're back in Havana now and since Kat's birthday was yesterday our Cuban Madre, Lily, has prepared a surprise for dinner! Tomorrow Sue and Chris are headed to the airport early in the morn, and Kat and I go back to work. This week my family is visiting so in all likelihood I won't post again until next week.
Hasta luego! 

Thursday, 4 July 2013


We've moved into "el campo" (the field) or the department of Hortalizas (vegetables) where we'll be working for two weeks. Hortalizas is by far the largest department and is where all the seedlings from the casa de postures go to be planted in the long "canteros" (raised garden beds). To give an idea of their size, 1000 plants can be planted in one cantero. The size of this department demands for more workers. Thirteen men and one woman keep this department moving. They rotate between planting the seedlings, and harvesting them when they're ready to be bundled and sold. Alexi (who I found out today is married to Luisa who works in Agroindustria) and Pedro pictured together below have largely taken Kat and I under their wing. The two often sing together while working and are by far the most talkative of the group. 

Alexi and Pedro (Pedro's holding the strips of fabric used to tie up bundles of lettuce/chard)
The past couple days we've been planting lettuce seedlings. They spend a month in the casa de postures before coming out to the field to be planted where they mature for another month. The bundles of chard and lettuce pictured below both sell for 4 cuban pesos a piece. 

Bundles of Chard - 4 Cuban pesos a piece
Lettuce before being tied - also 4 Cuban pesos a piece
In this department the irrigation system is controlled locally. Each cantero has its own control located in the ground in front of it (pictured below). Despite the fact that Cuba gets a fair amount of rain in July the irrigation system is quite necessary and is turned on twice a day; once in the morning, once in the afternoon for an hour each time. 

An irrigation control panel. They're pretty easy to trip over if you're not paying attention.
Irrigation tubing running down a relatively empty bed (onions along sides)
The major problem this department has to contend with are the "plagas" or pests which can destroy hundreds of young seedlings before they've developed. From what I've heard, the major perpetrators are snails (caracols) and the caterpillars (gusanos) of the white butterflies that flutter around the farm. Pictured below is a chard plant covered in gusanos and gusano eggs. 

One method they use to try and preserve crops are "cortinas anti plagas". These are lines of plants which are sacrificed to the pests in order to guard the desired crops. For example, in the photo below two lines of corn surround the field of beans in order to ensure the survival of the beans. Katherine and I will soon spend a week in the Plagas department where we'll learn how the organopónico cultivates natural enemies for pests so that pesticides remain unnecessary. 

The corn on the left is eaten by pests, while the bean plants on the right remain largely untouched. 
Speaking of pests, anyone who knows me will know I really can't stand spiders. I've grown to be able to deal with them when I find them in the house but nonetheless I still squirm when I see one. One of the men came up to me today holding the spider pictured below. Generally when people show me something on the farm it's an interesting medicinal plant, a flower, or some fruit, which is what I expected when he held out his hand. It's safe to say I was surprised. (I'm pretty sure he's still holding the spider in the group picture below as well).

I know it looks a little small but keep in mind Rodolfo has very large hands.
All smiles (and the spider is still in Rodolfo's hand)
From left to right: Rodolfo (Spiderman), Chino, Me, Marie Sol, and Pedro.
Chino, Me, Alexi, and Pedro
Today the workers in Hortalizas held their monthly meeting where together they discussed problems facing their department and how they plan to fix whatever they can. Every month there is a meeting with all the workers of the organopónico, but since the Hortalizas department is so large, they have a second meeting of their own. As the organopónico is a cooperative, each employee is also an owner so through these meetings they are able to discuss problems and possible changes as necessary.

This week Katherine's Mom, Sue and brother Chris are visiting so I think we're going to go adventuring in Viñales this weekend, and next week my parents Mary and Bill and brother Daniel will be visiting. It's going to be tiring but excellent week!  

Below are a couple general photos of the department:
 Chino (that's not his name but everyone calls him Chino) and Marie Sol planting lettuce.
Little lettuce seedlings
Lettuce ready to be picked