June 26, 2018
Slow Food, Cuban Style: Happy Farm Convivium, Havana
It started with rabbits. “We fell in love with them”, says Dario Martos Gonzalez, of “Granjita Feliz” (Happy Farm), a project and convivium in Guanabacoa, a municipality on the outskirts of Havana. An attorney by profession, Dario left his job several years ago, together with his wife and project co-leader Elisabeth Frometa Mejias, to devote himself to developing a ‘proyecto comunitario’ (community project) that began with this first falling in love. With no prior knowledge of animal breeding, they cleared a space in their home, a narrow, two-story 19th building in the middle of town, to raise rabbits. Elizabeth enrolled in an adult learning program in veterinary medicine. Within a few short years, they were breeding over 100 rabbits each month, and selling them for their meat.
Animal protein is dear in Cuba, and consists almost entirely of locally-raised pork and imported (frozen, from the USA) chicken. Beef is prohibitively expensive on the open market; what little ground beef is included in Cuba’s universal food rations comes stretched with soy protein. Enter rabbit, a healthy, tasty, and accessible alternative, and a well-known and prized ingredient in the Spanish gastronomy that suffuses so much of Cuban cuisine.
As Elizabeth and Dario gained knowledge and experience, what began as a project to produce rabbits for meat evolved into a selective breeding program. Now they raise the animals to improve the quality of the breeds and produce breeder destined to home farmers. Face to face in the community and through local television programming, Elizabeth teaches other home breeders how to raise and care for them. Today, Granjita’s rabbits number only around 40, and share the indoor space with 3 hives of ground bees and a dozen quail. On the roof above are the latest additions to the project’s produce: strawberries. Delicately balanced greenhouse shelves sit atop the slender edges of the building’s fragile roof, the only part of the structure capable of bearing weight. Taking a lesson from the rabbit operation, Granjita is breeding strawberries not for the fruit, but for the seedlings, which they
distribute to families wanting to grow berries at home. It’s a tricky proposition in the wilting tropical heat, not the ideal growing conditions for berries. Here too, Granjita steps in with the how-to necessary to succeed, through classes, programs, and demonstrations. Also on the menu of Granjita’s offerings are art and gardening programs for children with autism and Down’s syndrome, and monthly donations of farm-fresh produce for the families of children with cancer. In this way, Granjita is as much horizontal community project as vertical urban farm.
As the hub of one of Havana’s four Slow Food convivia, Elizabeth and Dario have been joined by a diverse group of farmers, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs with a similar philosophy, about both happiness and power. From “revolution is . . .”, a series of dicta culled from Fidel Castro’s speeches exhorting the Cuban people to embody revolutionary ideals, the hand-scrawled sign on the gate of the uneven 2-acre plot belonging to Carlos, also known as the “hombre goma” (rubber man), says it well. It reads “Revolution is emancipating ourselves by our own efforts”. The rubber man moniker comes from the vegetable garden Carlos has created using hundreds of discarded truck tires that once littered his property and garnered fines from the municipal authorities for serving as mosquito breeding grounds. Now, piled three or four high, and filled part way with strips of rubber from other tires, they form circular raised beds that allow for easy tending. Carlos has opened the garden to his neighbors, who share in the work as well as the harvest. Some of the produce is destined for the monthly grocery baskets donated to the families of children with cancer. Here, where money is scarce and buys little, the capital that counts is mostly social, the measure of success disseminating know-how. And happiness.