Cuba's lessons for New England's farms

  A stretch in Massachusetts of the Connecticut River Valley, the most fertile and agriculturally productive area in New England.

A stretch in Massachusetts of the Connecticut River Valley, the most fertile and agriculturally productive area in New England.

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' column in GoLocal24.com

There’s been quite a revival of small-scale agriculture in New England in recent years, with the products grown alluring to the swelling numbers of “locavore’’ customers, many of whom buy the stuff at those proliferating outdoor markets open from spring to late fall or at the increasing number of stores, including supermarkets, that tout the local origin and “organic’’ nature of their food. Proving that something is “organic’’ can be daunting….

Cuba, of all places, may have some lessons for successful small-scale organicagriculture here. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, deprived the Cubans of cheap petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, the Cubans have movedto become very successful growers of food without these manmade chemicals. This movement has been further encouraged by some reforms that have replaced huge state-run farms with many small farms -- some in urban areas -- run by individuals.

The lack of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has led over the years to more sustainable and healthier agriculture on the island.

I was reminded of this the other day after reading a Boston Globe column headlined “Is Cuba the future of farming?’’ by Greg Watson, who’s a former Massachusetts Department of Agriculture commissioner. Mr. Watson, whom I know slightly, is no apologist for the Communist dictatorship led by the late Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul. But Mr. Watson has zeroed in on what the Cubans have been doing well.

Cuba is not the “future of farming’’ for the United States in general: The economics of the food industry means that huge agribusiness farms in the Midwest, the Plains States, California, Florida and some other places will continue for decades. But in New England, where topography and population density encourage much smaller farms, Cuba offers some lessons, even when considering that the Cubans, unlike New Englanders, can grow things outdoors year round.

Providence-based United Natural Foods Inc., an “organic’’ foods distributor, is a natural partner for such small-scale farms and the markets and restaurants they help supply. The company has just announced that it’s adding 150 new jobs in Rhode Island, where it already employs about 450 people.