Thursday, March 3, 2011

Private farming lifts output in Cuba rice province


* Rice output increasing in key province: official

* Castro reforms seen spurring rice production

* Private farming now producing most rice in Granma

By Marc Frank

BAYAMO, Cuba, March 2 (Reuters) - Cuba's most important

rice-producing province should more than double output this

year as new private farms and service cooperatives, improved

organization and higher local prices kick in, a senior

provincial official told Reuters on Tuesday.

President Raul Castro's cash-strapped government has

embarked on a program to cut food imports, and rice, which is a

Cuban staple -- and therefore a political matter -- is a top


The country's 11 million people consume a minimum of

700,000 tonnes of rice a year, one of the highest rates per

capita in the world.

Cuba imported 511,642 tonnes of rice in 2009 at a cost of

$238.5 million, most of it from Vietnam.

"Three years ago Granma produced approximately 17,000

tonnes of consumable rice, in 2010 we reached 27,000 tonnes and

in 2011 we should be at 62,000 tonnes," said Raul Lopez

Rodriguez, the province's vice president for economic affairs.

The eastern province was the site of a huge, state-owned

rice project under former President Fidel Castro, one of nine

in the country, but output rapidly declined with the demise of

the Soviet Union, once Cuba's top benefactor.

Castro's brother is revitalizing the projects, but under

agricultural reforms begun soon after he took over the

presidency in 2008.

The government has leased fallow state lands, raised prices

paid for rice and other produce, and decentralized decision

making, among other measures.

"Rice is now grown mainly by the non-state sector," Lopez


"The state supplies resources, technological packets (seed,

fertilizer, etc.) under contract," he said, then buys 90

percent of what the farmers produce.

Agricultural services, such as mechanical harvesting, which

just a few years ago were monopolized by the state, are

increasingly being carried out by private agriculture service

cooperatives, he said. That is another Castro reform.

Lopez said higher prices paid for the rice allowed the most

efficient farmers to clear between 80,000 pesos and 100,000

pesos per year, the equivalent of up to $4,000, or 15 to 20

times Cubans' average annual income of 5,300 pesos ($238) per


Arnaldo, who leased 33 acres of fallow land three years ago

in Yara, said he made around 40,000 pesos on each of the two

harvests in 2010, and expected similar results this year, using

mainly contracted services and labor.

"I bought the packet from the state and hired some workers

to help plant," he said. "They have offered me another 16 acres

and I think I'll take it."

Cuba's total rice production was 281,800 tonnes in 2009, up

50 percent over 2008.

But efforts to increase Cuba's rice production faltered

last year as output fell 12.2 percent to 247,000 tonnes.

Lopez attributed the decline to the growing pains of

Castro's reforms and a shortage of resources and water.

He said new equipment had arrived and the resources needed

this year were secured, though drying and shelling capacity

remained limited and the province was working on temporary


"We have an advantage over last year. Currently our water

resources are at 82 percent capacity and at this time last year

they were at 45 percent," he said.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Walter Bagley)