Our Cuba Photography Workshop is ON!

Join us January 5-12 for an amazing trip to Cuba focusing (pun intended) on photography. We will meet Cuban photographers, visit galleries and teach Cubans about our way of doing things while learning about theirs. We will see the gorgeous Havana architecture and meet many warm and open Cuban people. We will also visit the beautiful Vinales Valley, A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cuban National Park. Most of our time will be spent in Havana.

Old Havana viewed from the Malecon

The light in Cuba is exquisite, suiting the generous spirit of its countrymen.  I will include instruction and we will review and critique images as the trip progresses. This is a unique opportunity!  Come see for yourself what others only talk about. Travel to Cuba is legal; we will be traveling under a “people-to-people” license issued by the US State Department. We will have a modern air conditioned coach bus for our ground transport accompanied by a knowledgeable Cuban guide. We will eat at some fantastic restaurants opened under new laws allowing private enterprise. We leave from and return to Miami.

It’s not too early to start planning so set aside January 5-12, 2013. For more information you can email me rich@richpomerantz.com, or contact the Center for Cuban Studies at 212-242-0559 and ask for David.

Read more.. Friday, August 10th, 2012

Make your own fuel on the farm from the stuff you grow? Yes! Here’s how!

The entire notion of sustainability is based on the plain meaning of the word. Unlike words such as “environmental”, “organic”, or even “local”, the word “sustainable” is self-defining. Some folks are saying that it is becoming yet another of these words that get bandied about by all kinds of charlatans and therefore it is losing the impact of it’s true meaning, but I don’t agree. Sustainable can only mean one thing – that the thing you are applying it to is, well, sustainable – able to be sustained! Try to co-opt it, or use it for something else and it doesn’t work. It can’t be re-defined to mean something not sustainable (though some are certainly trying. Greenwashing has some extreme proponents).

So if you would like a really good example of a sustainable system, here is one for you to cast your eyeballs at, located in Lee, NH, about an hour north of Boston at Tuckaway Farm, the home of Cornell graduate and University of New Hampshire PHD candidate Dorn Cox. Dorn grew up on the farm bought by his parents in the 1970’s and returned there after a career in international agriculture and economics.

Dorn Cox at Tuckaway Farm

Dorn is working on a number of very cool things, like developing the best wheat & other grain crops for New England. Most people think all the wheat in the US can only be grown in the midwest, but once upon a time (up to the time of the Civil War) farmers in the northeast grew wheat along with many other crops. By the time the larger combine type mowers were invented, which would allow for economical grain farming anywhere, most wheat growing farms were established in the midwestern plains, and eastern farmers just did not contemplate going back to growing grains. Dorn has proven that grain can be grown profitably in the northeast; Local farms now working with Dorn are now selling flour at competitive prices and he is testing different grass types to refine his economic models further.

Field of new varieties of spring wheat, early in the season

But the wheat is not the thing that brings up the sustainability issue.  The more exciting thing he is doing is his development of a seed-to-biofuel plan, in which he grows oilseed plants (like sunflowers & canola), refines the oil right on the farm in a mobile refining system he designed and built to create fuel that he then uses on the farm to run his tractors and other equipment. It’s an entirely self-sustaining and self supporting system, which happens to also be on wheels so he can transport it to other area farms to allow other farmers to utilize the same economies to refine their own fuels.

Here’s how it works: He grows the crop, let’s say sunflowers. He has figured out that four acres of sunflowers will yield 300 gallons of fuel at a cost of approximately $1 per gallon to produce. He presses the seeds for their oil while tilling the fibrous plant material back into the soil. The solid by-product (cake) of the pressing is used for animal feed.  Nothing is wasted or thrown away! The oil is refined through a multi-step process in a repurposed soda distributor’s panel truck, whose compartments afford the perfect set-up for the multiple refining tanks. The fuel moves from tank to tank by way of compressed air, so no emissions are created in the refining process. It is totally self-contained. Dorn calculates that his biodiesel gives back 3 to 5 times more energy than it takes to create it.

Former coca-cola distribution trailer converted into a biofuel refinery

So what Dorn is doing goes beyond mere plain vanilla sustainability. Basically sustainability is frequently seen as a benign, “do no harm” attitude, laudable certainly, and the basis for the positive notion of carbon-neutrality. But why be neutral?  We know we have taken too much carbon from our soil & pushed it out into the atmosphere through our heavy use of fossil fuels.  Maybe we need to consider reversing the direction of the trajectory we have become so used to. That’s Dorn’s philosophy, pushing the concept to another level, to actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and return it to the soil, using knowledge of plant biology coupled with environmental engineering with a healthy dose of agricultural economics. Dorn is a two-time USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service grant award winner and he is the founder and director of GreenStart, a non-profit whose mission is to share technology designed to promote healthy soil, food and energy. As if that isn’t enough use of his time, he also sits on his town’s energy committee, founded the Great Bay Grain Cooperative and is on the board of the New England Farmer’s Union. He won the New Hampshire Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Achievement award a few years back. And he works his farm too!

Read more.. Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

The sensory garden at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

There is a jewel of a garden in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

I first visited the 250 acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (CMBG) in the fall of 2007, shortly after it opened. It was an impressive landscape then, although the plantings were young and scant. The plan was apparent with several garden areas radiating out from the visitor center.  The layout brings the visitor down through a rocky woodland path to the tidal shore woodland.  Moreover, the design incorporates a number of very beautiful and engaging environments; a meditation garden filled with large granite slabs from different parts of the state (so there is an educational and historical context), a woodland “fairy house village”, where children of all ages are invited to build tiny fairy homes, paths and even villages, out of the twigs and brush found at the site, and the hillside garden through which the path winds.  The path has several sitting areas and places to slow down and enjoy the space, so it’s not just a transition area between the main gardens at the top of the hill and the areas below near the water, but is an integral part of the garden experience.

I revisited the CMBG this week to conduct a garden photography workshop. The transformation of this garden in just four and a half years is amazing! The gardens are lush and brilliant, and the support facilities are beautiful. There is a visitor center with a cafe serving delicious food and a state of the art education building. There is much more than 5 years of work evident here; planning began in 1991, a full sixteen years before it formally opened.

Shown above is the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, which contains plants, water and hardscape which engage all five of the senses, in addition to being a wonderland.  It’s a really spectacular looking garden, very well laid out and approachable. It is one of the gardens found near the visitor center. Wander down the hill and be ready for some true charm. Fairies!

residences in the fairy house village

CMBG also boasts one of the most interesting children’s gardens I have seen, with themes derived from children’s literature by authors with a Maine connection, there are cute (green-roofed) houses, plantings, water, story areas, a “bear cave” and plenty of climbing opportunities.view of the children's garden

Fun allium display at entrance to children's garden

The biggest surprise for me was that in the second week of June, the summer season had barely begun in this resort town known for it’s wonderful summer seafood-sated escapes. The town defines Maine cuteness, and is filled with seafood restaurants. You can even go out on a lobster boat to experience the fishing in a kind of eco-tourism-meets-Americana fantasy.  The temperature barely got to 70 degrees, the evenings required pants & a light jacket. We were blessed by a nice day with slightly overcast skies, not too bland overcast but not bright blasting sunshine either.  This light allowed some dimension, some shadowing, (I could have used a little more, frankly), but not so much contrast as on a bright sunny day.

mountain laurels along the upper part of the Haney hillside garden

The executive director is Bill Cullina, well known in the horticultural world for his expertise on native plants (a very hot topic these days – Bill is a sought after speaker). Bill was the director of horticulture there before becoming the executive director last year. He’s also an accomplished photographer and the author of several books, including one on native plants and one on perennials.

If you are able to make the trip to Maine, I recommend you make sure you have a day to take in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. You can absorb it in one day. Take a look at their website, mainegardens.org to find out about their programs. I hope to return for another workshop in a year or two, but in the meantime there are plenty of great programs being offered for adults and children. They also have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where participants can share in the crop harvest from the CMBG’s vegetable garden.

weeping trees & plantings along the path in the Haney hillside garden

Read more.. Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Photography Workshop Central

Workshop participant in Hollister House garden, Washington, CT

The past few weeks have been filled with workshops, from NYC’s High Line to Massachusetts Horticulture Society’s beautiful Elm Bank campus in Wellesley, MA, back to two more here in CT, and those followed the international trips recently posted about. My head is spinning! I have more to look forward to; I am really psyched about this coming Tuesday at the premier peony grower Peony’s Envy in Bernardsville, NJ. That workshop is almost filled to capacity.

Our next workshop is at Peony's Envy in NJ

After that coming up in June is another at the High Line on June 2, this time through the auspices of the NY Botanical Garden, followed by one “down east” at the Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens in Booth Bay, which I visited the first the year it opened and then again a few years ago. The changes there have been dramatic, so I am really excited to lead a workshop there on June 12. Then I’ll be helping people interpret the Monet’s Garden exhibit at NYBG on June 14.

Group photo from a Litchfield County 3 day workshop.

Hot off the presses and here to crow about is a piece I photographed last year at a wonderful writer’s garden in West Stockbridge, MA that appeared in the current issue of Design New England, written by the wonderful Tovah Martin. (The opening spread shown above is a scan right out of the magazine, hence the ‘gutter’ between the pages shows in the center)The cool thing about this garden is first, that it had never been photographed professionally until the gardener asked me to come see it about three years ago. I started visiting and shooting there, then I brought Tovah to see it & she fell head over heels in love with the garden and just as much with Marian, the gardener, and Carol, the owner, who worked together for years to develop their vision of this garden.  The result is beautifully displayed in the magazine; Kudos tho Design New England!

Read more.. Friday, May 18th, 2012

Slow Flowers

I don’t typically just refer to someone else’s blog post, but the wonderful blog Gardening Gone Wild, (whose photo contest I had great fun judging last year) is a fantastic blog for gardening knowledge and information.  Their most recent post is worth sharing. It is run by some extremely competent folks – Writers Debra Lee Baldwin, Fran Sorin and Noel Kingsbury and photographer Saxon Holt. With firepower like that you can bet their blog packs a wallop. I just finished reading Fran’s interview with Debra Prinzing, author and creator with photographer David Perry of the superb new book, “The 50 Mile Bouquet”, a gorgeous project (yes, I am jealous!).  The book kind of picks up where Amy Stewart’s “Flower Confidential” finished, bringing the flower buying down to the local level and explaining who is doing local growing and most importantly, why that is such an important notion. Many people have bought into the idea of eating locally, or at least of being aware of where their food comes from, but few give any thought to where their flowers come from. In most cases, it’s a continent or an ocean away! Learn more and read the interview here.

If you want to read a blog post I did about Sunny Meadows Flower Farm run by a young couple for local consumption, click here.

Read more.. Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The Challenges of Travel Photography

Always loving to travel & being me, I have had a camera with me since I was 8 years old. Having been on the road so much in recent months, first to Costa Rica in February & then Cuba a few weeks later in March, I have been paying attention to the way I photograph, using my iphone, my Lumix point-and-shoot, and my trusty Nikon DSLR’s: a D700 and a D3s. I also learned a little bit about how to best carry my gear, & found that the same Crumpler messenger style bag I mostly use here at home was my favorite option on the road as well. (Mine is an older version of what they now call their “6 million dollar home” bag).  I have led many workshops, and the one I took to Costa Rica in February was a fabulous blend of garden photography while making new friends with everyone on the workshop, and travel photography, which is all about meeting new friends. The Cuba trip was pure pleasure and learning, which is why I travel: for enjoyment and to learn.

Che Lives! Well, at least he is caffeinated.

And photographing, of course! I believe most of us are so enamored with photography because it allows us an expanded visual method of telling the stories we want to tell.  One of the most basic human social needs is to tell each other our stories. Photography, especially now in the early 21st century, is so uniquely accessible and manipulable that it has become an integral part of how we communicate with each other. Photography is now part of the human vernacular and becoming more so every day. Imagine the explosion in social media without photography; would pinterest, instagram, even facebook exist without photography? Maybe, but not likely or certainly not in the same form and with much less power than they have evolved.  But I digress!

So traveling affords us such a rich and fulfilling opportunity with which to exercise our photographic muscles. One of my favorite quotes is that “The camera is a passport into the lives of others.” (Alas, I have lost the attribution). It is so true. The trick when travelling is not to act like a taker, which is how tourists are usually characterized. Hence the difference between a tourist and a traveler, and between a tourist with a camera and a travel photographer.

Cuban counter waitresses, HavanaThese two women worked at a cafeteria in Havana on a busy street. The space is open to the sidewalk, which is why the light sluicing in is so wonderful. It’s bouncing around the street behind me & coming softly into the restaurant to brighten these two friendly ladies’ faces. Three of us stopped in here to see if we could grab a soda. Sitting at the soda-fountain-style seats we were able to learn their names and how many people were in their families. In turn we told them about our families and a little bit about us and about how beautiful we found their city.  Nothing brightens someone up as much as a visitor telling them how beautiful their home is. We were being sincere, but it’s nothing more than the principle that a little flattery goes a long way, especially when it’s true. I promised to send them copies of the photos we took, and I am making good on that promise.

To make these kind of images on the road I have to work fast. I find it’s best to minimize the number of decisions I have to make, such as which lens to use. I travel with one camera and one backup in case the first one goes down but they don’t have to be equivalent. In Cuba I used the D700 as my primary and my Lumix point-and-shoot as the backup. In Costa Rica I used my big gun, the D3s as my primary and my backup was the D700, though I also did use both the lumix and the iphone for some fun street shooting where I wanted to be unobtrusive. I also use the Lumix for scouting photos, so in the garden at the hotel where I was staying I was able to capture this image before breakfast one morning with the Lumix LX-5. It’s a wonderful point-and-shoot camera that has many of the features found in DSLR’s (aperture & shutter priority modes, you control the ISO, high definition video…) but at a fraction of the cost and in a package that fits into my coat pocket.

These street scenes were made with my iphone and processed through an app called “camera +”.between the buses in San Jose CR

There are more of these in this online gallery (generally speaking, the square photos are from the lumix, the images with extreme color saturation and border treatments were done on the iphone)

In Costa Rica we did a lot of hiking in the forest, where I wanted to reduce the stress on my neck from the Crumpler’s neck strap. For that situation I have a Tamrac modular belt , the smallest (4″ wide) one, since I only have two lens cases attached. I really don’t want to carry lots of lenses, especially when I travel; the fewer decisions I have to make the faster I can work, and the less complicated the entire process becomes. The more technology you use, the more separated from your subject you become. Having two lenses on my belt allows me to keep one lens on the camera, with two in reserve, but without being unduly loaded down. The lenses I used for both of these trips are the 80-200mm 2.8, a 28-70mm 2.8 and a 17-35mm 2.8, and in Costa Rica a 60mm macro. I also carried a 1.4 tele-extender to help give me a little extra boost. Sometimes I left the wide angle in the room & took my macro instead; there is just so much new stuff to see in the tropics at close range that the macro was perfect for, like this passion flower. The pollinators in the second image I am told are “stingless bees”, what we here in the northeast might (mistakenly) call flying ants.

passiflora vitifolia aka passion flower

Then there is the trick of capturing nuances of cultural differences without making them seem trite. Many aspiring photographers go out into a scene, especially in a foreign country but also here at home, and try to make photos that look very much like the photos they have seen in postcards or in travel magazines. It’s not the worst thing in the world to do, and in fact it can be a good exercise, to flex your photo muscles by trying to copy the success of others. But ultimately if you do this as your goal, your photos will always be at best a weak reflection of someone else’s vision and at worst just trite or exploitive.  It’s best to find your own vision, your own way of seeing the world and translating that into your photographs. Doing it in a foreign culture is extremely satisfying and rewarding, primarily because it’s harder to be false when you are not totally familiar with the language, the customs or the terrain. You have to be open and more honest in order just to navigate. Keeping this honesty in your photography will lead you to rich imagery and wonderful experiences with the people you meet. Organiponico vivero AlamarThis fellow was a farmer working in an urban farm in Havana, where they grow food but also ornamental garden plants, in the area shown to the right. Like almost every Cuban we met, he was friendly and open to talking about his life and he was very interested in us. The rapport these conversations created allowed us to photograph many of our new friends there with integrity and honesty.

You don’t have to travel to exotic locations to incorporate these principles into your photography. Travel photography can be done in the next town, or at your kids’ sports games, anywhere you might find yourself actually! It’s really about being open and honest with your subject and yourself about your intentions and your goals for the images you are about to make.  As Joe McNally, the great National Geographic photographer, wrote recently, photography involves “the head, heart and the hands in equal measure”. What other activities can so engage us?

Read more.. Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

The Challenges of Travel Photography

Always loving to travel & being me, I have had a camera with me since I was 8 years old. Having been on the road so much in recent months, first to Costa Rica in February & then Cuba a few weeks later in March, I have been paying attention to the way I photograph, using my iphone, my Lumix point-and-shoot, and my trusty Nikon DSLR’s: a D700 and a D3s. I also learned a little bit about how to best carry my gear, & found that the same Crumpler messenger style bag I mostly use here at home was my favorite option on the road as well. (Mine is an older version of what they now call their “6 million dollar home” bag).  I have led many workshops, and the one I took to Costa Rica in February was a fabulous blend of garden photography while making new friends with everyone on the workshop, and travel photography, which is all about meeting new friends. The Cuba trip was pure pleasure and learning, which is why I travel: for enjoyment and to learn.

Che Lives! Well, at least he is caffeinated.

And photographing, of course! I believe most of us are so enamored with photography because it allows us an expanded visual method of telling the stories we want to tell.  One of the most basic human social needs is to tell each other our stories. Photography, especially now in the early 21st century, is so uniquely accessible and manipulable that it has become an integral part of how we communicate with each other. Photography is now part of the human vernacular and becoming more so every day. Imagine the explosion in social media without photography; would pinterest, instagram, even facebook exist without photography? Maybe, but not likely or certainly not in the same form and with much less power than they have evolved.  But I digress!

So traveling affords us such a rich and fulfilling opportunity with which to exercise our photographic muscles. One of my favorite quotes is that “The camera is a passport into the lives of others.” (Alas, I have lost the attribution). It is so true. The trick when travelling is not to act like a taker, which is how tourists are usually characterized. Hence the difference between a tourist and a traveler, and between a tourist with a camera and a travel photographer.

Cuban counter waitresses, HavanaThese two women worked at a cafeteria in Havana on a busy street. The space is open to the sidewalk, which is why the light sluicing in is so wonderful. It’s bouncing around the street behind me & coming softly into the restaurant to brighten these two friendly ladies’ faces. Three of us stopped in here to see if we could grab a soda. Sitting at the soda-fountain-style seats we were able to learn their names and how many people were in their families. In turn we told them about our families and a little bit about us and about how beautiful we found their city.  Nothing brightens someone up as much as a visitor telling them how beautiful their home is. We were being sincere, but it’s nothing more than the principle that a little flattery goes a long way, especially when it’s true. I promised to send them copies of the photos we took, and I am making good on that promise.

To make these kind of images on the road I have to work fast. I find it’s best to minimize the number of decisions I have to make, such as which lens to use. I travel with one camera and one backup in case the first one goes down but they don’t have to be equivalent. In Cuba I used the D700 as my primary and my Lumix point-and-shoot as the backup. In Costa Rica I used my big gun, the D3s as my primary and my backup was the D700, though I also did use both the lumix and the iphone for some fun street shooting where I wanted to be unobtrusive. I also use the Lumix for scouting photos, so in the garden at the hotel where I was staying I was able to capture this image before breakfast one morning with the Lumix LX-5. It’s a wonderful point-and-shoot camera that has many of the features found in DSLR’s (aperture & shutter priority modes, you control the ISO, high definition video…) but at a fraction of the cost and in a package that fits into my coat pocket.

These street scenes were made with my iphone and processed through an app called “camera +”.between the buses in San Jose CR

There are more of these in this online gallery (generally speaking, the square photos are from the lumix, the images with extreme color saturation and border treatments were done on the iphone)

In Costa Rica we did a lot of hiking in the forest, where I wanted to reduce the stress on my neck from the Crumpler’s neck strap. For that situation I have a Tamrac modular belt , the smallest (4″ wide) one, since I only have two lens cases attached. I really don’t want to carry lots of lenses, especially when I travel; the fewer decisions I have to make the faster I can work, and the less complicated the entire process becomes. The more technology you use, the more separated from your subject you become. Having two lenses on my belt allows me to keep one lens on the camera, with two in reserve, but without being unduly loaded down. The lenses I used for both of these trips are the 80-200mm 2.8, a 28-70mm 2.8 and a 17-35mm 2.8, and in Costa Rica a 60mm macro. I also carried a 1.4 tele-extender to help give me a little extra boost. Sometimes I left the wide angle in the room & took my macro instead; there is just so much new stuff to see in the tropics at close range that the macro was perfect for, like this passion flower. The pollinators in the second image I am told are “stingless bees”, what we here in the northeast might (mistakenly) call flying ants.

passiflora vitifolia aka passion flower

Then there is the trick of capturing nuances of cultural differences without making them seem trite. Many aspiring photographers go out into a scene, especially in a foreign country but also here at home, and try to make photos that look very much like the photos they have seen in postcards or in travel magazines. It’s not the worst thing in the world to do, and in fact it can be a good exercise, to flex your photo muscles by trying to copy the success of others. But ultimately if you do this as your goal, your photos will always be at best a weak reflection of someone else’s vision and at worst just trite or exploitive.  It’s best to find your own vision, your own way of seeing the world and translating that into your photographs. Doing it in a foreign culture is extremely satisfying and rewarding, primarily because it’s harder to be false when you are not totally familiar with the language, the customs or the terrain. You have to be open and more honest in order just to navigate. Keeping this honesty in your photography will lead you to rich imagery and wonderful experiences with the people you meet. Organiponico vivero AlamarThis fellow was a farmer working in an urban farm in Havana, where they grow food but also ornamental garden plants, in the area shown to the right. Like almost every Cuban we met, he was friendly and open to talking about his life and he was very interested in us. The rapport these conversations created allowed us to photograph many of our new friends there with integrity and honesty.

You don’t have to travel to exotic locations to incorporate these principles into your photography. Travel photography can be done in the next town, or at your kids’ sports games, anywhere you might find yourself actually! It’s really about being open and honest with your subject and yourself about your intentions and your goals for the images you are about to make.  As Joe McNally, the great National Geographic photographer, wrote recently, photography involves “the head, heart and the hands in equal measure”. What other activities can so engage us?

Read more.. Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Organic farming at the border – the Mexican border. Young Farmer Series #15 – Wild Willow Farm

Despite some ugly freeways San Diego is a pretty cool city. Really good beer, an interesting farm-to-table community, that gorgeous harbor on the one side and beautiful rolling hills spreading away into the distance. Drive down I-5 from downtown heading south and you quickly find yourself in the dry, rural never-never land that abuts the border with Mexico. Yes, THAT border, where just a few thousand feet from the fence, literally right up on the north bank of the Tijuana River and 3 miles from the Pacific Ocean, sits Wild Willow Farm, about to enter it’s third season as an educational center run under the auspices of San Diego Roots, a sustainable food coalition of farmers, foodies, land preservationists and social justice advocates. The farm’s primary mission is education, and it’s program is managed by Misha Johnson, an enthusiastic yet soft spoken and gentle soul who hails, oddly enough, from Norwich Vermont, almost the exact opposite catty corner of the country!Misha has farmed in his native New England as well as France and Costa Rica. He came to Wild WIllow through first working at San Diego Roots, which he joined because he appreciated it’s vision of developing the local food system.  At Wild Willow he oversees herbal tea and mushroom growing operations utilized to generate cash for the farm, in addition to running educational programs for visiting schools and community groups. Wild Willow Farm was chosen last year as one of five regional garden education centers in the city, making it available for community gardens under a program affiliated with the SD Roots Victory Gardens program, a community initiative through which local community members are taught aboput the benefits of healthy eating and how to grow food.  With an outdoor kitchen the farm is equipped for cooking classes in addition to gardening and farming workshops, which are taught by Misha and by outside educators.

Wild Willow Farm is uniquely located in an area that is perfect for agriculture. The area around San Diego isn’t necessarily the best farming climate, especially in the hot summer, but being right on the river and so close the the ocean places it square in a moderated zone. SD Roots is a seasoned organization, anchored by Susie’s Farm, an established organic farm with a popular CSA program just down the road from Wild Willow. Misha did his homework before finding this place; looks like he did a good job!

Read more.. Friday, March 30th, 2012

Cuba, where sustainable farming is a necessity. A visit to urban farm Organoponico Vivero Alamar


Freshly turned field at Organoponico Vivero Alamar, one of Havana's urban farms

I was fortunate to visit Cuba last week, where I was interested to see first hand their urban and sustainable farming efforts. Most folks I speak to in the USA are surprised to hear about the tremendous advances the Cubans have made in organic agriculture. Basically it was forced upon them by circumstances. Up through the 1980’s the Cuban agricultural model did not vary much from historical industrial age methods: the agricultural economy was dominated, as before the revolution, by one major cash crop – sugar cane, which was exported largely to the Soviet bloc countries, in return for food stuffs and industrial supplies like oil and chemical fertilizers used in the classic industrial farming model we know all too well.  It’s ironic that monocultural sugar cane farming maintained a critical role in the post 1959 economy since it was the domination of the sugar industry by non-Cuban companies that created so much of the conditions for the revolution in the first place.  Be that as it may, industrialized farming was considered to be the way of the “future” according to both western and Soviet economic models, so it continued.   When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s lifeline to food, oil and chemicals dried up.   Cuban agriculture was oil and chemical dependent, using fertilizers and pesticides and requiring petroleum to run the machinery.   In 1991 the Soviets cut billions in aid and over the next two years the Cuban economy shrunk by 34%. In three short years Cuba lost up to 85% of it’s food imports. Automobiles disappeared from the streets for lack of fuel, electricity would be turned off for up to 18 hours at a time and the average adult daily food intake dropped from 3000 to 1200 calories. Malnutrition became a common health concern in a country proudly known for having one of the best health care systems in the world.  This was the beginning of what the Cubans call “the special period”.

While the early 90’s was extremely difficult for Cuba, it could have been much worse.  Looking back we now see that this time was instead marked by a transition to a more sane and sustainable form of food production.  Using education, which has always a strong point for Cubans, Cuba turned it’s industrial and centralized agricultural system into one run more and more at the local level as a system of community based organic farms. Human and animal labor was reintroduced, older farmers were consulted for their memories of traditional and importantly, local methods, and the population was educated about the benefits of eating less meat and more fruits and vegetables. Today Cuba mostly feeds itself.  The Cubans are still considered to be quite poor relative to their neighbors to the north, but when political pundits discuss and wonder how and why the populace tolerates the privations of the ‘special period’ and the sacrifices they still live with, the answer is simple: They are solving their problems their own way, using their own methods.  They are standing on their own feet, doing it for themselves. That’s quite a powerful incentive.

irrigation & carrots

In Havana alone there are close to 300 urban farms of varying sizes serving the neighboring communities.  Alamar is an outer neighborhood in east Havana, consisting of dreary post revolution apartment blocks acknowledged to be some of the least desirable housing in a city with serious housing problems.  Yet this farm, Organoponico Vivero Alamar is one of the larger and more successful ones.  Containing 11 hectares, which is approximately 27 acres, it is certainly is very beautiful and well run.  Our group had a warm and enjoyable two hour tour by the amiable Miguel Salcines López who has been managing the place since the beginning. He oversees a crew of more than 140 workers, all of whom receive a living wage and many of whom, as collective owners, share in the profits the farm brings in.  The land they farm was re-distributed to them by the centralized soviet-style system that held it previously, and which divested nearly two-thirds of the country’s agricultural land under this system in an effort to create incentives for workers to not only grow their own foods but to create surplus that they would then sell to others. It worked. It’s not truly socialism, and it’s not truly capitalism, but who cares? It’s healthy and it works.The Alamar farm grows flowers and houseplants too, and they have a sizeable compost operation, in which they bag and sell the organic soil supplement. In fact, this entire farm is built using supplemented soil, as the original earth is heavily compacted and clay filled. They have built up the soil with organic amendments to allow them to grow their crops, which is the basis of one theory explaining the made-up word “organiponico”, being a reference to organics as a basis for the farm. The fellow above was one of the workers, all of whom were friendly and like most Cubans I met, very happy to stop for a few minutes and share his story and have a photo taken.

I hope to return soon, and might offer a photography trip to Cuba, if I hear of enough interest! Let me know if you might be interested.

For more images of this Cuba trip, including portraits, street scenes and lots of photos of the old American cars, take a look at these three web galleries – http://t.co/o1NUCEDb http://t.co/Tg6x6HAU and http://t.co/yRWzzn5i.

Read more.. Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Costa Rica Photo Workshop

Wilson!...On the beach at Casa Orquideas

Eight days of moving around and photographing Costa Rica with six fantastic new friends, from San Jose (the capital) to the central mountains, down to the Wilson Botanical Garden near the southern border with Panama & then up the Pacific coast, photographing birds, flowers, gardens and the locals and looking at photographs in between enjoying great meals. Wilson (above) and Spike the dog greeted us at Casa Orquideas, an amazing isolated private botanical garden about a 30 minute boat ride from Golfito, populated by toucans and rare macaws.Among other things, the tropical rainforest provides enormous opportunities for macro photography, like this torch ginger or these leaves. We have been having tons of fun!


Read more.. Saturday, February 25th, 2012