From SoLA to Santiago

Since our last post, we’ve continued to develop the food and farm entrepreneurship program, with some exciting additions. The SoLA Entrepreneur Ecosystem Development project – SEED – is now in service, and it’s already taking lessons on the road.

To recap, the SEED project gives participants a practical foundation in the areas of aquaculture, hydroponics, and aquaponics and they can pursue further education and/or job training in careers related to agriculture, science and engineering. During two-day workshops, members participate in a real, working alternative energy center focused on urban agriculture and farm technology.

CUBA bad tinaMuch of our permaculture work over the past few years has been informed by lessons learned from Cuban farms. In particular, farms in and around Santiago de Cuba have some of the same edaphological, climatological, and social challenges as those in South Los Angeles. So, with friends in Cuba’s second-largest city, we thought it was time to travel to learn directly. We created a sister-city program to share food production practices and visited farms for a week in May.

During the trip, we proposed a project that uses solar power and general STEM concepts and Arduino microcontrollers. If you’re not familiar with these little devices, don’t worry, we weren’t either up until a few years ago! But once you get to know all the Arduino applications you’ll love them as much as we do. This microcontroller is essentially a little computer with a lot of places to plug things in (like switches and sensors, etc.). It can be used to control motors, pumps and watering all with a little simple programming – effectively increasing growing efficiency and productivity.

CUBA Lavastida sign

We met with staff and other participants in the permaculture program of the Centro Lavastida, in Santiago. Elmer Lavastida-Alfonso, the organization pastor, met with us along with Heidi, a physician and coordinator of health, nutrition and food production programs. They gave us a 30-minute presentation on the organization, in their beautiful art-deco building. Then Heidi organized a personalized, private tour of three permaculture sites in the rural suburbs. We spent nearly four hours traversing the countryside visiting fincas and organopónicos.

CUBA small plot okra

Quimbombó (okra)

 

At one site in a large yard, I talked about how the inclusion of solar power will increase efficiency and water flow. At another, we met with Cesar, agronomist and head of Lavastida’s permaculture projects. I shared how our proposed solar system, hooked up to Arduino, could store energy in batteries and automate the growing and aquaponics processes at his finca (large farm). Finally, we visited a medium-sized organopónico run by a professor of mathematics at the local university. She shares her bounty, which includes amazing sun-dried mangoes, in the larger community.

It was at the finca that we were able to participate in a workshop event where 30 people, from the surrounding six provinces, were learning about permaculture techniques. It was exciting to talk about how we will work together.

Back at home this month, we’ll be firming up our SEED work at the Ghettostead. Some of the materials we’ll be working with are solar packs and batteries, Arduino sensor arrays, drip irrigation control, soil moisture calibration and connecting monitoring applications like Carriots and Twitter. While much of the system plans are equivalent in both cities, notably, in Cuba there will be no Carriots and Twitter…for now. There are only about 50 hot spots on the entire island. In order to access the hotspot, you have to buy $2 Internet cards that contain one hour of access. So, our focus will be on technologies that allow farm systems to interact and automate without the Internet or wifi, like OpenHAB, Zwave and Apitronics and SMS technologies.

There are some meaningful changes coming to these cities and their growing sites. Importantly, we believe these small systems will keep farms efficient and productive in the face of looming pressures to introduce non-sustainable practices in both the U.S. and Cuba.