Land of Improvisation

Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Elverterio Cordoba has had to be creative to keep a 1958 American tractor running on his Cuban farm. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

When you return from Cuba, one of the first things people ask is: "How did you like the vintage cars?" Well, I liked them just fine, thank you. What's not to like about shiny fins, pink convertibles and white-wall tires on classic 1950s American automobiles?

I was in Cuba for about a week at the end of September with a group of journalists affiliated with the American Agricultural Editors Association. About 20 of us participated in a fact-finding mission, which meant a lot of meeting-room time in Havana with folks from institutions like the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Agrarian University of Havana.

All good stuff, of course.

But things really got interesting for this American machinery editor when I drove onto Elevterio Cordoba's fruit farm in the town of Remedio about four hours east of Havana. First thing I heard at the farm was the 1960s classic song, "Do Wah Diddy Diddy Dumm Diddy Do," blasting from a boom box in a workshop. Out pops Elevterio (He goes by Tello, but I was tempted to call him Elvis.) dressed in tight blue jeans, an unbuttoned white shirt over a black tee and jaunty aviator sunglasses. Somewhere between Havana and Remedio, I'd been transported back in time.

Tello is about 50 and has a big, welcoming smile. After introductions, the first thing he wanted to show me was his 1958 Ferguson TO-35 tractor. It had originally been red, but some time ago Tello had painted it powder blue. It looks pretty sweet.

This is not a showcase tractor; it is his everyday tractor. Like the classic cars I had seen in Havana, the Ferguson was the embodiment of making do with what you have. Cubans have not had access to original parts for cars and tractors since a U.S. embargo went into effect in 1960. So they have learned to improvise. Tello, for instance, has had to do some rewiring on his Ferguson.

The original starter switch had apparently gone bad, so Tello replaced it with a single-pole electric light switch. I don't know how old it was, but it had "Made in U.S.A." stamped in it. Tello flipped it to the on position, and the old tractor ground and ground but didn't start. The battery seemed to be weak. No problem. Tello pulled out a hand crank, stuck it in the grill of the tractor and turned the engine over with two cranks. Another big Tello smile.

Next on the tour was the three-row planter on the back of the powder blue tractor. Tello had improvised the planting unit out of pipes, plow tips and an electric motor from a windshield wiper. His seed hopper box had started life as something I didn't recognize, but it had a familiar square funnel shape. The windshield wiper motor was the mechanism for an ingenious seed metering system with infinitely variable speeds. It could meter seeds at any rate he wanted for corn, sunflowers, peanuts and beans. These are not crops Tello grows. But some of his neighbors do, and in Cuba, neighbors share equipment because they often can't afford to own.

Tello had other improvisations and innovations to show on his 5-acre farm. He is a pioneer in grafting together dissimilar tropical fruits to improve quality and quantity. He grows a few coffee plants so he can tinker with the genetics. And he refuses to plant trees in rows or to separate, say, his mamey trees from his bananas because he believes that plant diversity is more productive in the end than monoculture. "The different trees give something to each other," Tello says through an interpreter, "and each gives back."

Tello isn't a typical farmer. Nor is he a typical Cuban. But his ability to improvise seems right in line with the Havana Cubans who have kept their classic cars running in the face of a half century of parts shortages. And, yes, the cars look pretty sweet, too.


Jim Patrico