Growing organic fruits and vegetables is a choice in this country. But in Cuba, a decades-long trade embargo coupled with a food crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union has made it a necessity. And it’s one that could change as diplomatic relations on this nearby island are re-established.

What have farmers learned in a world without pesticides?

Maine congresswoman Chellie Pingree and 30 heavyweights, including former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, Stonyfield Farm Inc. co-founder Gary Hirshberg and celeb chef Tom Colicchio, are about to find out.

Pingree’s office came up with the idea for the four-day trip, organized by the Washington nonprofit Center for Democracy in the Americas.

The group of leaders in organics, such as Luke Donahue of Johnny’s Selected Seeds from Maine, left for Cuba April 30 to see what can be shared, gleaned and put into place. With commercial pressure from U.S. pesticide and fertilizer companies looming, Pingree feels the window is closing for healthy agricultural practices.

“Cuba has been largely organic since the fall of Soviet Union,” she said. “They have no pesticides [and] have moved from growing sugar cane to more diversified farming. There has been a lot of agricultural interest. We want to make sure that many of the U.S. companies that deal with organic agriculture have a foot in the door because once you convert from organic, it’s hard to go back.”

Moving to Maine after reading back-to-the-land bible “The Good Life” in the ’70s, Pingree started an organic farm on North Haven and has been a staunch local food advocate ever since. She has served on the Agriculture Committee and the Agriculture Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Thirteen years ago Pingree joined a Maine delegation to Cuba. This time she’s expects to find “a very different Cuba.”

“I’m wondering how much has changed and how much is still a challenge on the agricultural side.”

The group’s itinerary includes farms, restaurants and meetings with officials. With technology still lagging, it’s crucial to visit in person, Pingree said.

“You can’t find out what’s going on by looking at a website,” Pingree said. “In a country that’s newly developed, you have to go there and meet people and get into conversations and learn on the ground. There is a lot to be gained from the country of Cuba, if they can continue to expand their market, they can get good prices in organics. We want to get there before they turn it back into a commercial system and Domino Sugar comes in.”

In meetings with the U.S. ambassador to Cuba and the deputy minister of trade for Cuba, she hopes to plant seeds for the future.

“I know how hard people work to develop healthy soil for organic farming. In many ways, that’s my most serious concern: this country’s fertile land.”

She fears there will be “a mad dash to sugar plantations,” and farmers who may not know the high premium people play to eat organic will miss out.

“Organic food is in great demand. We want them to know there are markets available to them. They should see what they have as precious,” Pingree said.

Pingree will be looking to create a dual partnership, start a chef-to-chef exchange down the road and learn about urban agriculture. She expects to make connections, “talk to a lot of people in the field, including government officials and create some opportunities that we don’t know about yet.”

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.