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Growing lessons to learn

Film explores agricultural crossover between Cuba and Canada
Kyle Wells

Filmmaker Jeremy Williams and urban farming educator Ron Berezan are working on a documentary that will explore the link between an agricultural revolution in Cuba and the farming practices at work in Powell River.

Berezan started travelling to Cuba five years ago after he heard about the unique agricultural system that had been developing in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Up until that time Cuba, as a Soviet client state, received a large portion of its food and agricultural supplies through the Soviet Union. Cuba also relied heavily on large-scale commercial farming at the time, with little to no organic or urban agriculture.

The sudden downfall of the Soviet Union and the resulting loss of imports left Cuba with food shortages. The embargo against Cuba by the United States also left Cuba unable to turn to many other countries for trade. To rectify this Cuba needed to increase its own domestic food production.

Berezan credits three programs the Cubans underwent in the saving of its agriculture. First, land reforms by the government broke apart many of the large state farms and turned them into smaller plots for family farms and cooperatives. In addition to this the government started promoting agroecology, similar to organic farming, to increase soil fertility and encourage sustainable farming practices. Urban agriculture also became a priority at this time to enable cities to be more self-sustaining.

With rising questions over food security worldwide, Berezan sees Cuba as an inspiration and a model for a potential solution. Rising oil prices, natural disasters and a litany of other concerns have many people working toward communities, even cities, becoming more self-reliant in regard to food production. This is in part to avoid future food shortages should the supply of imported food ever be cut off. The converted also regard local diets as better for the environment, the community and the individual’s health.

Berezan’s business, The Urban Farmer, has been ongoing for about seven years, through which he promotes and teaches urban and sustainable agriculture. For the Cuba project, Berezan takes groups of farmers, urban growers, permaculturists and others interested in food production to Cuba for two weeks to visit farms, meet farmers and see for themselves the work that is taking place there.

In September 2010, while picking apples in Wildwood with Skookum Gleeners, Berezan met Jeremy Williams and the two started talking about food security and other environmental issues.

Williams, a filmmaker, has a background in environmental activism and issues. Shortly after meeting Berezan he heard about the tours to Cuba, a trip Williams had long been wanting to take. The two talked about the trip and the idea to make a documentary about the tour and the agricultural transformation of Cuba came up. Both were instantly excited about the idea.

“They understand that they are working with the earth, [food is] not just a commodity that they buy in the store,” said Williams. “For me that’s the inspiration that I see, that we can do that here and reclaim our connection to our neighbours and to the soil, the earth.”

The idea of incorporating Powell River into the project came soon after. The pair thought that by tying the Cuban story to Powell River and its local farmers the film would be more relevant and applicable to Canadian audiences. This new dimension to the film would compare the Cuban experience to North American farming and investigate what can be learned from its example.

“We thought well let’s try to create a film that will explore...the quest for food security in Cuba, all of the trauma that they went through, all of the lessons that they have learned and are now, quite frankly, offering to the world,” said Berezan. “What can we learn from that for a place like Powell River?”

Berezan believes the Cuban experience shows that people can learn to be farmers again. Despite a lost connection with growing food for most people, the example of Cuba shows that this connection can be reestablished. He also believes Cuba shows that organic, small-scale farming can sustain a population more effectively than large-scale farming with chemical inputs.

On a more practical level, Cubans utilize farming techniques such as companion planting, the use of particular effective microorganisms and even just the sharing of information between farmers, that other farmers can learn from.

To personalize the Powell River portion of the film Williams and Berezan decided to involve a local farmer in the project. Doug Brown lives in Wildwood and farms his backyard property of just under one acre. He joined the filmmakers as their Canadian subject and travelled with the pair to Cuba this past February for one of Berezan’s tours.

The filmmakers and Brown see Powell River in a similar light to Cuba. Both places have a strong heritage of agriculture due to relative isolation and are also susceptible to imported food shortages for the same geographical reason. The agricultural troubles that came to Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union could conceivably, on a much smaller scale, affect Powell River in the same way if for some reason food could not reach here from outside the area.

The finished film will incorporate the story of Cuba’s agricultural reform, the story of a group of Canadians visiting Cuba to see the changes and learn from farmers, and the story of bringing that knowledge back to Canada and applying it to agriculture at home.

“It’s a little bit of a cautionary story about the fragilities that do exist in our food system and how Powell River is potentially vulnerable,” said Berezan, “but also a celebration of what we are already doing and the direction that we can keep going in.”

Williams shot all of the Cuban footage on the trip earlier this year and is now working on the Powell River portion of the film. He expects the film to be about 50 minutes long and hopes to have it completed by May 2012 in time to show it at an international organic conference being hosted in Havana, Cuba.

The film is being shot on a shoestring budget. Berezan and Williams are very grateful to donations received already, which supported filming in Cuba. To complete the project, further monetary donations would be appreciated. Interested readers can find out about donating to the project by visiting the website or by sending donations to The Urban Farmer, 6370 Oak Street, Powell River, V8A 4L9. Receipts will be provided for all contributions and contributors will be recognized on the credits of the film.