To learn how a formerly dependent nation became more self-reliant when vital imports stopped arriving, author Marjory Wildcraft traveled to Cuba.
Wildcraft, best known for her “Grow Your Own Groceries” video series, wanted to speak to working-class Cubans to discover how they became self-sufficient gardeners after their country’s economy collapsed in the early 1990s.
Cuba’s collapse followed the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. Previously, the tiny island nation, just 90 miles from Florida, imported 80 percent of its fuel from the petroleum-rich Soviets. Nearly all imports were affected, however, such as medicine, food, machinery parts and textiles. Simultaneously, Cuba’s sugar exports plummeted, partly because high fructose corn syrup upset the sugar market.
Eventually, Cubans got healthier growing their own food. But first, they suffered, even resorting to eating domestic pets and zoo animals to keep from starving, according to a Forbes news report.
What happened in Cuba could easily happen here if Americans aren’t prepared.
Wildcraft, a former real estate financial consultant who believes a U.S. economic collapse is likely, wanted to learn from those who already lived through it. Wildcraft traveled with Millions Against Monsanto, a subgroup of the Organic Consumers Association, to discover how Cubans transformed their food system.
“The big question,” Wildcraft asked, “was how do you feed 11 million people when your entire agricultural system no longer works?”
When imports end
Wildcraft spoke with common gardeners and farmers about their crops and growing methods. She also sought advice for Americans preparing for economic collapse. The Cubans’ answers surprised her.
“Every single one of them said something about being ready to share with your neighbors, to help out in your community and do your best to keep your spirits up,” Wildcraft said. “Not a single one said to go out and buy a bunch of stuff.”
Wildcraft said, instead of storing bulk beans or buying guns, Cubans did what people naturally do in times of stress – they grew gardens and shared with neighbors. Many of these community relationships were built upon generations.
After the revolution, the government gave Cubans property, but does not allow them to sell it. Unlike Americans who move every 5 years, Cubans often live in a neighborhood for decades. As such, there is a high level of connectedness with people and little violence, Wildcraft said.
Living as old-time gardeners who walk or pedal for transportation, Cubans are healthier, according to a British Medical Journal study. Adults lost an average of 12 pounds by eating less calories and protein when meat and dairy foods became scarce. Most said the economic collapse “came as a big surprise they didn’t see coming.”
Parallels with Cuba
Wildcraft noted several parallels between Cuba’s pre-collapse system and America’s current financial crisis. For instance, America is now highly dependent on foreign fuel, importing 60 to 65 percent of its fuel.
“More than any other Latin American culture, Cuba embraced monoculture, which is what America definitely has, and that completely failed,” she said. Cuba relied mainly on sugar exports; when the sugar market dried up, Cuba had no other major cash crop. Similarly, the U.S. lost crop diversity.
Another parallel, she said, is in U.S. reliance on large farms and agricultural machinery. When Russian imports to Cuba halted, fuel and tractor parts were unavailable. Farmers turned to horses and oxen – which need only “water and grass and to be caressed.”
Wildcraft on ‘Beyond Off Grid’
Wildcraft highlighted her experiences recently on a webinar hosted by “Beyond Off Grid,” an upcoming film. The documentary, which includes a dozen agricultural, economic and homesteading specialists, strives to help people reduce their dependency on the modern control grid.
Film producer Jason Matyas spoke with Wildcraft about the municipal and private food plots she toured during her 10-day trip to Cuba.
Cubans used to eat a lot of rice (all imported), beans and pork, Wildcraft said. Post-collapse, Cubans ate more vegetables and fruit they grow themselves. They improved their predominantly clay soil and now raise vegetables and livestock wherever possible.
“The Cubans did what people all over the world do when in crisis – they started growing food on windows, in backyards and on corner lots,” Wildcraft said later. “They use all the classic techniques from organic gardening such as composting, vermiculture, companion planting and crop rotations.”
Dependence on oil
During the program, Matyas explained how an attack on Iran could almost immediately double or triple fuel prices as Iran likely would close its main shipping lane, disrupting oil transports.
“Whether that kind of scenario happens or not, the more local you can make your food supply, the better,” Matyas said. “The ultimate is growing your own food.”
The next best thing, Matyas said, is to trade among neighbors, followed by purchasing from a local farmer where you know the production methods.
Wildcraft added that knowing your community also is vital, and skills are much more valuable than goods.
Wildcraft said, besides traveling, she reads history to learn how people survived difficult times. The items usually becoming scarce first are food, seeds, transportation, clothing and medicines. People should also consider how they will do without their addictions (such as chocolate, liquor or coffee).
“These are all patterns that happen fairly predictably,” Wildcraft said, urging people to begin gardening now. “Growing food is not a skill you can learn quickly or easily.”
Besides gaining self-sufficiency skills, your physical health also will be rewarded as much industrial food is not healthful anyway.
Wildcraft’s video series is designed to help beginner or advanced gardeners learn more about raising small livestock or producing food in a backyard. Her website includes videos of her interviews with Cuban farmers and gardeners. Wildcraft’s mission is to put “homegrown food on every table.”
The Beyond Off Grid webinar series airs weekly. Organizers say their goal is to educate and inspire people to take action for a better future. To learn more, visit the website.
“The question is no longer ‘if.’ The question is ‘how’ and ‘how quickly’” Matyas said of U.S. economic collapse.
To read more and see more photos, visit our blog.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.
Photos by Marjory Wildcraft