Monday, April 21, 2003


There's another wonderful article in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly about the wisdom of the old ways of farming: "Carbonaro and Primavera" by Susan Orlean. It features a farmer in Cuba who never gave up using oxen to plough his fields even during the era of abundant Soviet aid in the form of tractors.
Once or twice Humberto rented a tractor, but he didn't like it. "It presses too hard," he explained. "The land ends up flattened, like a Cuban sandwich." Even when everyone else was using tractors, using chemicals, growing only sugar, Humberto ploughed with oxen; fertilized naturally, the way his father had taught him; cultivated tomatoes and corn and lettuce and beans—and sweet potatoes. Humberto never actually owned the oxen. He borrowed them from his neighbor, whose father had fought beside Humberto's father in the War of Independence.

When the Soviet money ran out, the battalions of tractors, now out of gas, rattled to a standstill, and oxen—quaint, anachronistic oxen—were once again worth their weight in gold. It was a lucky farmer who had never given them up, who still had a working team, who could still plough and plant even in the worst moments after the Soviet collapse. Luckier still was a farmer who had stuck with such crops as corn and tomatoes rather than being seduced by the money that had seemed as if it would flow forever from sugar. In such a moment a man like Humberto no longer seemed a throwback. Now in his eighties, slightly lame, wizened, Humberto is everything the new Cuban farmer needs to be: small-scale, efficient, diversified, organic—and, most important, invulnerable to the ups and downs of Cuba's gasoline economy, which once depended entirely on Soviet good will and has since come to rest precariously on Venezuelan.

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