Travel Diary: The Gentleman Farmer Escapes to Cuba to Explore Farmland, Food & Culture

12 mins read
Christina Noël Photography

With the recent reawakening of the US and Cuban relations, many Americans are seizing the opportunity to travel to Cuba before mass tourism and commercialism spoil its “frozen in time” period-ness of the pre-revolutionary days. Every year, at the close of our farming season, Dominic and I head to foreign soil to decompress and reconnect. This year, we landed in Cuba. In December, we spent an all-too-brief four days, basing ourselves in Havana and making a day trip to the beautiful rolling farmlands of the Vienales, about 2 hours west of the city. (Photos taken by Christina Noël of Christina Noel Photography. Street Musician image by Casey Swoyer.)

As farmers we are always interested in the local practices and the agricultural history of the places we visit. Cuba’s is particularly unique because of it’s 1959 revolution which was steeped in an agricultural movement of taking back the land from the upper-classes and redistributing it with equanimity as its goal. The early revolutionary agricultural practices, though, were not extraordinary. In fact, they were quite conventional. Cuba was forced into reliance on The Soviet Union because of the US applied embargo, and so at the time, the Cuban economy was largely tied to high-yield sugar production. This created a vicious cycle of importing agrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and oil to run the large-scale farming machinery needed to produce the sugar which was then exported to the USSR. What is interesting is that in 1989, three times more arable land in Cuba was used to produce sugar for export than was used to produce food for national consumption. At this time, most of the Cuban diet was imported from the Soviet Union.

This all changed dramatically, however, with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s when trading between the two countries completely collapsed. Oil, which was coming from the Soviets, was no longer available and the monocultural practices, that relied heavily on big agricultural machinery, came to a standstill. The agricultural system that was in place was not sustainable without the Soviet’s imports, therefore a time of scarcity ensued resulting in shortages of food, fuel and medicine. Cuba was forced into relying on its own human capital to create a new paradigm for producing food for its people.

With no other choice but to rely on its own resources, Cuba began utilizing organic practices. These included the integration of livestock into grazing rotations and creating closed loop processes such as recycling sugarcane waste as cattle-feed and using the cattle’s manure as fertilizer. Lastly, composting with worm castings became a common fertilizing method. Why Cuba had to go through this growing pang before it realized its ability to become agriculturally self-reliant was partly a symptom of the times. The United States was also in the height of mono-crop production and deep in the practice of using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. While the United States’ introspection and agricultural revolution— of which we are currently in the midst—has been propagated by the people and a demand for transparency; Cuba re-discovered organic practices and self-reliance out of the need to feed it’s people, having been cut off completely from any importing. Between the fall of the Soviet Union and the U.S. Trade embargo, (which applied not only to the U.S. but to all of it’s allies as well) Cuba was well and truly an island onto itself.

Cuba, now in control of it’s own food sovereignty, is empowered to feed its people while creating jobs in the agricultural industry, and the restaurant industry — in turn it is also reducing its emissions and pollution without the use of mono-crop practices and Big-Ag machinery.

Today local food production and consumption, when complemented by Cuba’s new support of privatized business, has resulted in a restaurant and food revolution. In its not too distant past, tourists were subjected to centrally run hotel and restaurant food where the menus were the same across the country, serving only traditional Cuban staples such as pork, rice and beans. Now Cuba is experiencing a surge of gastro-focused dining from local Cuban-fare to higher-end, white table cloth dining, which explore fusion-style entrees, all of which is farm to table. Our first dining experience in Centro Havana at Casa Miglies epitomized this with their Swedish-Cuban menu and white tablecloth dining juxtaposed with the live Cuban jazz creating an exotic atmosphere from the back room. The larger privatized restaurants, such as the infamous and romantic La Guarida (set on the top floor of a dilapidated building in Centro Havana) have had great success with tourists, and therefore have significant influence on the government proving that more opportunity for private business is good for the economy.

Parallel to the restaurant industry’s boom is that of room and board. The government has recently made allowances for it’s people to offer private home-stays called Casa Particulares. Cubans are able to rent out rooms or their entire homes as guest-rooms for tourists. This has become quite a reliable option for many tourists traveling independently of a tour group; the risk of hotels overbooking and being without a room upon arrival is a possibility many would rather avoid, and it’s been known to happen! We had the pleasure of staying at Casa Concordia in Centro Havana which was suggested by The Guardian on-line. We stayed on the 6th floor, accessible only by a narrow set of winding stairs, or an old caged elevator where getting two people in at a time was a squeeze, let alone with luggage. We were met by Gabo, a young, dark and handsome Cuban who had a fair grasp of English, but preferred to keep quietly cool using the most minimal speaking to clue us in on the hip Havana scene of which he was a member. In stark contrast to Gabo’s charmingly, aloof ways, Yanitza was a bubbly and enthusiastic cook who effusively practiced her English, indulging us in Cuban Culture 101, from education to health care to her perspective of the US — which was “dangerous and filled with violence.” Since the revolution, there has been very little street crime or crime at all in Cuba and so our problem with gun violence in America is, in many ways, beyond comprehension to Cubans.

We took a day to get out of the city and explore the Vinales, a beautiful mountainous landscape west of Havana by about 2 hours. Most of the land in this region is cultivated for either tobacco production, livestock or produce. Our guide, Joel took great pride in his ride – a teal and white vintage ’56 Chevy Bel Air — exquisitely restored. With very little importing of modern-day vehicles, the pastel classic cars not only add to the cinematic feel of Cuba but are the pride and joy of many locals. Most of the cars have had their inside parts refitted, now being motored by Mitsubishi engines. Joel goes back and forth to California to buy parts which he can only get in the States. His Bel Air, which he endearingly named “Diamante” is like both his wife and daughter. He continues to explain this analogy with a wink claiming that the car “is easier and more loyal than the real thing.” Diamante is just one of a number of classic car relationships Joel has nurtured for over 20 years. As Joel shared, “The energy of the country has really changed since Rahul [Castro] took over [leadership of the country from his brother Fidel].” Since then Joel, like many other collectors, has been able to turn his hobby into a thriving word of mouth and US-web-based tour business called Nostalgicar. Just the week before, Joel had driven a journalist from Chicago. She had asked him to stop in front of an old building so she could get a photo of the car in front of it. Like us, she wanted to capture the old Cuba, the one we outsiders objectify and romanticize. But for the Cubans, with the changing of the guard, they are looking forward. “We are leaving the hour of the old house, old car,” Joel says. Cubans realize they are on the precipice of change with US relations warming and privatization opening up, and yet there is worry and concern about whether the infrastructure is stable enough to manage the change without an implosion. One specific area of concern we share with Joel and older Cubans is the preservation of the architecture throughout the country, but most noticeably in Old Havana, where the art nouveau, art deco and eclectic architecture is prolific.

There is only one group, Habaguanex, that has taken on the charge of restoration and preservation over the past 20 years. Habaguanex was established as a result of a British journalist reporting on the collapse of two buildings in Old Havana within the same 24 hours in 1993. Due to the negative international publicity this generated, the government created the Habaguanex organization which partnered with the Office of the City Historian to take over all publicly operated business and redevelop Old Havana. With its complete autonomy, Habaguanex took the profits which were generated by the businesses and redirected them toward development and restoration projects without having to have any oversight from the government. Habaguanex also partners with foreign investors, most notably the Spanish, who own many of the boutique hotels in Old Havana under the name Habaguanex Hotels. While Habaguanex is active and successful in its agency, many young Cubans have little interest in Old Havana’s historical significance. They prefer to tear down and build anew. The leader of Habaguanex is entering his third act. And according to Joel, there is no succession plan, leaving the future of his legacy and the architecture in question. This seems to parallel how the people question the country’s future as a whole: What is the succession plan?

Diamante cruised the endless, three lane highway seamlessly while we took in the sights from the backseat sans seat-belts, despite a good 80km clip. I was fascinated by the paved yet empty roads; views without billboards bar a couple of propagandist reminders of how “agriculture is the way forward,” or that the “capital is in the people.” Occasionally we would speed by a farmer on a horse pulling a cart or commuters, thumbs extended, hoping for a lift to the next stop. We shared the road with few compact Eastern European cars, and mostly big tour buses which we tried to keep ahead of on the Vienales circuit. Once out of Havana the landscape quickly became lush and green, filled with rice farms, sugar cane, guava and Royal Palma — the national tree. The slow grazing of pigs, goats and cows reflected the pace of a Caribbean island.

The Vienales Valley is a UNESCO world heritage site and is notable for the mogates: tall rounded hills that rise sharply up from the valley. The Vienales has its own micro-climate and soil that is rich and so fertile that according to Joel, the Chinese visit to test and study what makes it so nutrient dense. The town of Vienales proper sits on either side of a single rural road and is a simplistic example of one story colonial architecture complete with covered porches where the locals wile away their warm afternoons. The culture here is a diverse soup of indigenous, Spanish and African influences which communed in the early 19th century due to colonization. Historically this multi-cultural population have worked together for centuries on the tobacco plantations. As we rolled through the region, the appearance of distinct triangular shaped thatched drying huts where tobacco leaves are hung to cure verified that this still is tobacco country.

We arrived at an “official” tobacco farm which belonged to the family of some farmer friends of Joel’s. Farmers Encino and Giovanni welcomed us like neighbors, greeting us with outstretched rough, weathered and tobacco stained hands. They were dressed alike in well worn straw hats, button down shirts, green pants and knee high muck boots with hefty knives holstered to their sides like pistols. Dominic, always curious about cultivation methods and techniques began peppering them with questions from the start. Not much was lost in translation between our friend Andy’s fluent Spanish and Dominic’s acting skills which came in handy when demonstrating the art of hoeing; Encino joked that, based on the look of it, Giovanni would have five rows planted by the time Dominic finished one. Pointing to a cow, Encino explained that his tractor moos and showed us the plowing device made of wood which gets pulled behind it.

This particular farm has been in Encino’s family for generations. It currently belongs to his mother who is 101 years old. Since the revolution, in order to be able to “own” land in Cuba, you must cultivate it or the government will replace you with someone who will. In addition to growing tobacco, the farm’s 12 acres produces cocoa, coffee, avocado and mango. Most farms in Cuba are run as cooperatives and the amount of land one receives is dependent upon the capability of the cultivator. Typically, with vegetable production, 10% of the crop yield goes to the government while the rest can go to market or direct to restaurants which is at the discretion of the farmer. Tobacco is the inverse of that. 90% of the tobacco harvested goes to the government (all the best is reserved for export) and 10% goes to the farmer to sell as he pleases — though it was made clear that the farmer isn’t always transparent regarding the yields of his crops (wink, wink). All of this was shared, while Giovanni expertly rolled a cigar for us on his knee, using the creole variety of tobacco he pulled off the drying racks. As we wandered, turkeys gobbled throughout the fields pecking away at the insects and bugs that would otherwise have devoured the crops.

Visitors to Vienales often rent bikes and ride the lanes passing small organic vegetable, flower and tobacco farms along the way. Due to a sudden downpour we diverted from our original plans to see the touristy sights, including an ancient cave mural, and instead enjoyed a leisurely two-hour lunch of Cuban specialities and rich conversation with Joel as he explained and shared the joy, pride and complexities that come with being Cuban. We were all so grateful for the rain. On our ride home, the skies, although still moody, gifted us with a double rainbow which spanned the entire horizon.

Along with the sights of Cuba, we indulged our other senses while in Havana and some of my most distinctive snapshots of the country come to me through recollections of music, food and the thick smokey scent of the land. Every corner in Havana offered live music from the street performer playing his guitar on the steps of a building to an ensemble fulfilling the tourist’s dream of hearing a Buena Vista Social Club tune while drinking a mojito. The art scene was also thriving with young artists taking up residence in huge abandoned warehouses offering multi-media galleries, clubs, bars and lounge spaces that were thronging well past midnight.

There is a sense that the different communities in Havana unite to define their particular neighborhood and take pride and ownership in doing so. One example of this was our visit to the Hamel Alley where the Afro-Cuban Santeria community gives tours of their outdoor gallery space and sells local art using the proceeds to fund the local school. On the same day we visited Jaimanitas, a middle class fishing village to the northwest of Havana. Also known as Fusterlandia, the entire village has become a canvas for the mosaic artwork by its namesake and resident Jose Fuster. Familiar to many as the “Picasso of the Caribbean,” Fuster works with ceramics, paint and sculpture, but it is his mosaic with which he has transformed every surface of the neighborhood starting with his own home. Fuster’s mosaics represent the combination of fantasy and life while the bright colors and fantastic subjects such as mermaids and snakes and political Cuban figures all evoke the varied and vibrant spirit of Cuba. Often Fuster’s residence, which is also his art studio, is open to the public. He has been known to take time to speak with tourists, but we arrived just before lunch and so were only given a few minutes to take in the multi-level property, of which every square inch is covered in mosaic. The neighborhood has welcomed the mosaic tsunami which has consumed everything from street lamps, to fences, to benches by also creating and displaying art in their own homes. But most poetic are the tiles that have been painted and sent back to Jaimanitas from visitors as a thank you or an act of solidarity.

Before we left for the airport, we climbed up to the rooftop of Casa Concordia’s building and faced North. From the view, we could have just as easily been anywhere where the glory of what once was has become nothing but a faded iteration of itself: the majestic buildings which have been ignored for decades, proudly defied crumbling with the next breeze from the sea. It was hard to fathom that just 90 miles away, across the slate colored waves of the Atlantic, was the United States.

As an outsider, there is an impending sense of potential and possibility for Cuba that is palpable and easy to imagine, but it is not without the bittersweet wonder of what could’ve been and what has been lost over the last half of the century. For the Cubans however, there is only one direction to move, forward. And that is exactly where they plan to go.

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(Photos taken by Christina Noël of Christina Noel Photography. Street Musician image by Casey Swoyer.)

About the Author

Jessica Green and her husband Dominic run The Gentleman Farmer, a family farm in Barrington Hills. When they’re not working on the farm, Dominic and Jessica keep busy looking after their two sons, Henry and Oliver.

You’ll also find the Greens offering their farm fresh produce when the Barrington Farmers Market is in season on Thursdays weekly from 2 to 7 p.m.

Jessica also authors our Get Growing with Jessica Green series here at focused on local farming, food and family.

For more information about Jessica and Dominic’s efforts in local and sustainable farming, visit

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