When Army General Raúl Castro Ruz visited the Antonio Maceo Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS) in 2010, located in Mayabeque province and a pioneer of the fruit cooperative movement, he was convinced that what had been achieved there needed to be replicated across the island, in order to solve basic problems as regards foodstuffs and fruits.
Efforts since then have been focused on growth: growth in productive units, crop areas, yields, etc. And while this growth has been experienced, supplies continue to fall short of demand. The presence of fruits in markets across the island remains scarce, whether fresh or as preserves.
Today, a total of 206 cooperatives are linked to the fruit movement and in the last five years, the areas dedicated to this activity have increased by 15% to 14,127 hectares.
By the end of 2016, these cooperatives had produced 104,867 tons of fruit (the total in 2012 was 68,000 tons), which exceeded plans by 20%, and accounted for 19% of the total 500,000 tons of fruit produced in the country between the state, cooperative and small-scale farming sectors.
However, in order to satisfy the Cuban population’s demand for fruit, this figure needs to be 800,000 tons, as Lázaro Hernández Hernández, president of the Antonio Maceo CCS, and adviser to the National Fruit Group, told Granma. Added to this figure is the demand from the tourist sector, and the possibility of producing for export, which would provide a source of income to reinvigorate the program.
In his view, it would take about one million tons of fruit (almost double what is produced today) to cover all sectors. “The fruit cooperatives movement growing by 20% is encouraging, but we need an annual growth rate of 30% to reach an estimated 250,000 tons per year within a five-year period.”
At the 7th National Meeting of the Fruit Cooperatives Movement, held recently in Ciego de Avila, the results of the last five years were evaluated, difficulties that persist and hamper growth were noted and, above all, the strategies for the current period were well defined, all aimed, ultimately, at achieving productive levels that allow for municipalities to be self-sufficient, contribute to supplies to the big cities, support sales to the tourist sector, and encourage exports.
On June 13, 2008, the country’s first fruit cooperative was born. And it was the Antonio Maceo CCS which was entrusted by Army General Raúl Castro to lead these efforts. A year later, noted Lázaro Hernández, who has served as the cooperative’s president since then, the idea of forming a fruit movement arose and 28 cooperatives were created for that purpose. By 2010, this had risen to a total of 100 entities.
“On the instructions of the Army General, in 2012 I toured the country to evaluate the productive levels of cooperatives and undertake a survey of the main difficulties. Then there was talk about the marketing problems, the granting of bank loans, the lack of mini industries, irrigation systems... And from there also came the idea of promoting, in the provincial capitals, a farm of 67 hectares in the form of a Credit and Services or an Agricultural Production cooperative,” he recalled.
By 2014, Lázaro Hernández and Dr. Adolfo Rodríguez Nodals, head of the National Group of Urban, Suburban and Family Agriculture, received guidelines to create, as part of this program, at least one fruit cooperative in all those municipalities that did not yet have one. This resulted in a further 100 cooperatives, which are directly attended by this National Group.
Specialists agree that among the actions carried out over the past five years, it is primarily worth noting the advances in the domestic manufacture of irrigation systems and equipment for the processing of fruits and vegetables, as well as the existence of 362 fruit juice bars, 125 of which are located in or near hospital areas.
In 2012 there were 47 mini industries located in cooperatives across the country. Since then and to date, a further 21 have been created, and by the year 2017 another five are planned, which will guarantee a 45% increase (although insufficient) in processing capacity in this period. However, according to Lázaro Hernández, the limited resources to undertake the civil construction works, and the inadequate availability of packaging, are significant stumbling blocks.
Regarding irrigation systems, those destined for the aforementioned 67 hectare farms have already been manufactured, whose installation process began in Villa Clara. However, he added that “in order for the fruit program to advance, it is necessary to implement a production schedule that allows for at least 2,000 hectares per year to be covered with irrigation. This way, 80% of areas would be reached by 2020.”
Rodríguez Nodals noted that the program is also aided by the commitment to further exploit the potential for exports; set guidelines for yields per hectare; work toward diversification, as the plans promote traditional fruits and, to a lesser extent, others with scarce presence; guarantee the necessary positions, particularly in the case of citrus species; increase the use of bioproducts; and strengthen training in this sector.
Among plans that can not be left unmentioned, Lázaro Hernández noted the use of shady areas to interweave Robusta coffee plants, with the future vision of self-sufficient territories; as well as the planting of coconut trees along the perimeters of farms, in order to extend this practice on a commercial scale to the whole country.
A LABORATORY COOPERATIVE... OR VICEVERSA
Lázaro Hernández truly enjoys innovating, although his various responsibilities no longer allow him to do so as much as he would like. That’s why his cooperative could well be considered a laboratory. A sui generis of 54 caballerías of land (approximately 700 hectares), with 100 species of fruit trees, which also supplies 150 liters of milk per day, and even intends to experiment with the sowing of flowers, to reduce costly purchases abroad.
He recalled that when the CCS was created, the farm yielded 200 tons of produce. Today the cooperative produces more than 5,000 tons. Of these, 4,000 tons are fruits (mainly avocado, mango, papaya and guava), and the rest includes root vegetables, grains and green vegetables.
This agronomist was also a pioneer in the use of polyculture, “a practice extended to all fruit cooperatives today, since it is a method that provides savings of around 70% in fuel, maintains the stability of the workforce, and increases workers’ income.”
Lázaro has always been convinced of the essential nature of this last aspect. The cooperative’s agricultural workers earn on average between 2,000 and 4,000 pesos a month, together with a fixed basic salary of more than 700 pesos.
Although it seems contradictory, the largest crop in terms of sales to the state is beans (more than 100 tons). Meanwhile, while the CCS produces 3,000 tons of avocado, state demand is just 10 tons per month. A good part of the produce is sold at the cooperative’s two points of sale and a mini-market, currently undergoing repairs.
According to Lázaro, the construction of a mini industry is also currently underway, which should be inaugurated in June, and will be the first that will include both a conventional and an organic product line. Regarding “experiments,” he mentioned the possibility of extracting oil from avocadoes following their processing, allowing for imports for the cosmetic industry, for example, to be substituted through domestic production.
“The fruit cooperatives movement is still young, it is reflecting, many of the things we have done since 2012 are now beginning to work, and so it will gradually grow,” Lázaro stated. However, in his view there are issues that can not be lost sight of: the resources and technology demanded by the program, training on best practices, and the continually renewed desire to clear a necessarily spiral path.