Callicoon Center farmer and county sustainable development maven Dick Riseling, far right, with a group of fellow tourists at one of many community parks in Havana. This one features innovative water conservation projects and exhibits.
A voyage to Cuba
Story by Dan Hust
CALLICOON CENTER December 31, 2013 When farmer and activist Dick Riseling first set foot in Cuba, he witnessed the changes brought about good and bad by the Fidel Castro administration.
“I wanted to see what a real revolution was like,” he recalled.
Nearly 50 years later, he returned to see yet another revolution this one in agriculture.
“I knew I’d learn a lot,” he affirmed, “because they’re just so innovative.”
Riseling came home to Callicoon Center on December 2 after spending nearly two weeks in and around Havana, finding out how the people and the government are realizing a long-held dream of a self-sufficient, totally organic food supply.
“It is the form of industry we should have here,” he said.
Through the Global Justice Center, Riseling travelled to Cuba with 18 Americans, Chileans, Ecuadorians and Mexicans to study organic agricultural methods that he said are changing the way the entire country produces and consumes fruits and vegetables.
“They will become a completely organic food-production country,” he predicted.
The group stayed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, a hotbed of progressive thought run by area churches, including Ebenezer Baptist, which is pastored by a leading Cuban politician.
Though Riseling admits the Cuban government has had disastrous failures on a variety of issues, this initiative is gaining widespread support and serving as an international model.
“In Cuba, everybody is taking courses in organic agriculture,” he said, explaining that the country’s overreliance on the sugar industry and ineffective Soviet-style collective farming made this change a necessity.
It’s a mix of socialist and democratic ideals, Riseling noted, as the government sets national norms on wages and employees, while the land, products and equipment are privately owned.
For example, Cuba has required irrigation workers to be the highest-paid employees in the nation, in order to foment this change.
“A surgeon makes about 400 pesos,” Riseling pointed out. “An irrigation worker makes about 700.”
“Counselors,” as they’re called, have gone out to schools, homes, and public gathering spaces to educate the poor and the rich about the benefits of organic food production.
Beneficial insects are being bred to aid with crops. And 65,000 oxen are now helping till the land, replacing equipment that often harmed the environment, he added.
Of course, there was a bit of time to enjoy the Caribbean island country’s weather and people.
“Every evening, you have to go out dancing,” Riseling related. “Whether you’re young or old, you’ve got to go.”
The trip is the first he’s taken to Cuba in 35 years, but in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was a regular visitor, thanks to his work on a Cuban-focused journal and a master’s thesis on the country’s agriculture and economics.
He also found it the best way to get accurate news about Cuba during the days when it and America were far more hostile to one another.
It’s still difficult to get a visa from the U.S. government, but charter groups helped Riseling and company gain a flight from Miami to Havana.
And once again with this trip, he found he’d only heard a small part of the ongoing story of Cuba.
“I really see that I’ve missed a lot of the learning I need,” Riseling admitted.
It’s inspired him to redouble his efforts on a self-manufactured wind turbine, greenhouse and methane biodigester to be installed on his Apple Pond Farms in Callicoon Center.
He wants to create and encourage a cadre of new farmers who can grow the nutritious food people need locally, with the goal of slowly but surely turning the area (and the rest of the nation, he hopes) away from the mechanized, large-scale, corporate farming that dominates the American food supply system.
Not surprisingly, he plans on returning to Cuba soon.
“I hope to raise some money and take some solar thermal panels to put on the Martin Luther King Jr. Center,” Riseling affirmed.
That trip will likely happen in 2014, to be quickly followed by one where he hopes to have local teachers and musicians as travelling companions, accompanying him to sample and learn from Cuba’s rich culture and share an American culture that is often more welcomed than one might think.
“Cuba is such a potent nation,” Riseling said. “I want to go learn and hopefully give something back.”
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To hear more about Cuba, tune in to Riseling’s weekly radio show on WJFF (90.5 FM): “WJFF Connections,” every Monday at 7 p.m.