Cuba looks to suburban farms to boost food output
* Plan aims to ring cities and towns with small farms
* Objective is more food production at lower costs
* State monopoly on sales eased a little
By Marc Frank
CAMAGUEY, Cuba, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Cuba has launched an ambitious project to ring urban areas with thousands of small farms in a bid to reverse the country's long agricultural decline and ease its chronic economic woes.
The five-year plan calls for growing fruits and vegetables and raising livestock in 4-mile-wide (6.5 kilometer) rings around 150 of Cuba's cities and towns, with the exception of the capital Havana.
The island's Communist authorities hope suburban farming will make food cheaper and more abundant, cut transportation costs, be less reliant on machinery and encourage urban dwellers to leave bureaucratic jobs for more productive labor.
But the government will continue to hold a monopoly on most aspects of food production and distribution, including its control of most of the land in the Communist-run nation.
The pilot program for the project is being conducted in the central city of Camaguey, which the Cuban agriculture ministry has said eventually will have 1,400 small farms covering 52,000 hectares (128,490 acres), just minutes outside the town.
The farms, mostly in private hands but also including some cooperatives and state-owned enterprises, must grow everything organically, and the ministry expects they will produce 75 percent of the food for the city of 320,000 people, with big state-owned farms providing the rest.
On a recent day, dozens of people were hard at work plowing fields, hoeing earth, posting protective covering for crops and putting up fencing as the sun came up.
"This land they gave to us, the private farmers. I have four hectares (10 acres) and now they have leased me eight (20 acres) more," one of the farmers, Camilo Mendoza, told Reuters.
"Look, on this side and the other side are other plots, and over there another. Here they have given quite a bit of land and support to private farmers," he said.
The project is modeled after the hundreds of urban gardens developed by then-Defense Minister Raul Castro during the deep economic depression of the 1990s that followed the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe.
BEANS, NOT CANNONS
He proclaimed at the time that beans were more important than cannons, marking a strategic shift towards a more domestic focused agenda by Cuban leaders after decades of active support for liberation movements and leftist guerrillas overseas.
The suburban project dovetails with other steps introduced by President Raul Castro since he took over the day-to-day leadership from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008.
These have included the leasing of fallow state lands to 100,000 mostly private farmers, raising prices for farm products and allowing farmers to sell part of their crops directly to the people instead of to the state.
On the other side of Camaguey and a few miles up Cuba's central highway, Armando, the head of a cattle cooperative, said his group was persuaded to join the plan by the offer of land to raise garden and root vegetables and the chance for direct sales to the public.
Stands have been set up every mile or so along the city's ring road for the sales, but Armando said they are taking their products to the customers.
"They assigned us a district where we can sell our produce. We are using a mobile system, a bicycle cart, and sell out every day," he said.
"In December we produced around five tonnes. The root vegetables we had to sell to the state, but we were free to sell the garden vegetables directly," he said.
The changes are tweaks to Cuba's centralized socialism, not a major step away from it, keeping with Raul Castro's vow to protect the system put in place after his brother took power in the 1959 Cuban revolution.
He has balked at more sweeping, market-oriented changes that many expected when he took power and without which many economists say Cuba will not significantly increase agricultural output.
Cubans have seen many past government efforts to transform the country's agriculture fail, so the farmers at Camaguey said they were taking a wait-and-see attitude on this latest one.
"For sure there will be more food around here if you come back in a few years," Camilio Mendoza said about his expectations.
"More than that, I can't say." (Editing by Jeff Franks and Paul Simao)