Cuba’s slumping dairy industry

Farm Forum

SAN JOSE DE LAS LAJAS, Cuba — Years ago, an extraordinary cow lived in Cuba, and her name was White Udder. She produced milk like no cow before.

One day in January 1981, farmers coaxed White Udder to the milking stand three times. By the end of the day, she’d produced 29 gallons of milk. Comandante Fidel Castro was very, very happy.

The feat earned White Udder a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for daily milk production. Castro brought a stream of foreign dignitaries to visit the cow, received daily reports on her condition, ordered a bovine security detail and demanded that veterinarians look into cloning her. For Castro, White Udder made manifest the success of his revolution in Cuban milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream.

Today, an unblinking White Udder dwells in a glass case at the National Center for Animal and Plant Health, stuffed by the lead taxidermist from the National Zoo after she was put to sleep in 1985, suffering from skin ulcerations.

Cuba’s dairy industry is moribund as well. Dairy cows today on average produce less than a gallon a day, a fraction of the seven to eight gallons U.S. dairy cows issue daily, not to mention White Udder’s voluminous service to socialism.

It turns out that the dairy industry is emblematic of Cuba’s economic system – just not in the way Castro so dearly hoped. White Udder, rather than a harbinger of an ever more productive socialist dairy industry, was more of a freak of nature, pampered in an air-conditioned enclosure on the Isle of Pines, music piped into her stall, nourishing a radical lactic dream.

“It wasn’t genetic,” said Leopoldo Hidalgo Diaz, an official at the animal and plant health center. “It was an anomaly. It’s never been repeated.”

From the rural cow pasture to an iconic two-story ice cream stand in central Havana, the subject of dairy is likely to elicit resigned shrugs from Cubans.

Fidel Castro “wanted to have better cheese than the French, better milk than the Dutch and better chocolate than the Swiss,” said Regina Coyula, a historian. “He said Cuba would make better ice cream than Howard Johnson’s,” the now-defunct U.S. chain.

At the Coppelia ice cream parlor, where honored guests would watch in astonishment decades ago as Fidel Castro occasionally indulged in 18 or 20 scoops of ice cream, or more, only two flavors of ice cream are available to Cubans now. On a recent day, they were strawberry and choco-vanilla swirl. A booth for foreigners paying hard currency had two other flavors, vanilla and plain chocolate.

Only one variety of bland processed cheese is routinely available at state-run stores or dispensaries.

The son of a dairyman, farmer Brigida Valle Acosta has spent most of his 68 years tending to cows outside of San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque province southeast of the capital. His only break was to fight with a Cuban army unit engaged in Angola’s civil war in the mid-1970s.

Valle and his son have 15 cows, and each produces about a gallon a day. Production is low because his cows eat only what they find at pasture. The state no longer provides balanced fodder or soy feed.

Valle acknowledged that some mornings he wakes up with one thought in his mind: “This isn’t worth the trouble.”

“We used to give them soy, wheat and processed corn with additives,” Valle recalled. The cows would reciprocate with plenty of thick, creamy milk.

Now the inspectors who come around to test his milk say it is low in density and with substandard fat, giving him barely a third of a Cuban peso for each of the two liters that by law he must turn over to a state distributor for each cow he oversees.

The area around his farm is suffering.

“If you went 20 square kilometers around here in the 1980s, each of the state dairy enterprises was producing a thousand liters a day,” Valle said. “Now, they are producing 100, 200 liters a day.”

At the Valle del Peru state farm in another area of Mayabeque, dairyman Omar Cubero Ferron said a combination of a lack of nourishing feed along with poor incentives for individual milk producers have brought production down.

At his farm, managers obtain about two pounds of processed feed per cow per day, he said, meaning that production per cow is nearly two gallons of milk, still low.

“It all comes down to the feed,” he said.

For decades in Cuba, providing fresh milk was a paternalistic pledge of the state. It wasn’t so hard when the Soviet Union subsidized the Cuban economy, providing raw material, including animal feed. At its height in 1984, the Cuban dairy industry produced an annual peak of 1.1 billion liters of milk.

But with the 1989 collapse of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Empire, milk production collapsed. At its low point in 2004, Cuba produced only 340 million liters of milk. The island’s cattle herd fell from 7 million to 4 million head.

Raul Castro took the reins from his older brother in 2006, and a year later he lashed out at the dairy industry for low production, issuing a promise that each Cuban child under age 7 would receive a glass of fresh milk daily.

It has been a hard promise to keep. Cuba imports quantities of powdered milk. By 2014, according to the National Statistics Office, dairy farms had edged annual production up to 497 million liters.

There’s been no other like White Udder, though, and her passing in 1985 was nearly an affair of state. Granma, the party newspaper, ran a full obituary. A statue was erected at the entrance to the La Victoria farm in Nuevo Gerona, her hometown on the Isle of Pines.

Last year, Cuban filmmaker Enrique Colina produced a documentary called “La Vaca del Marmol,” or the Marble Cow, in which the story of White Udder serves as a metaphor for Cuba’s failed economic strategies. The film shows ordinary Cubans recounting their belief that milk production would rise and rise.

Lines still form every morning outside the retro Coppelia ice cream parlor, which sits in the center of a block in the Vedado area of the capital.

In one line, Cubans grew visibly uncomfortable when a visitor asked about the dwindling available flavors. One woman, declining to give her name, said, “They used to have mango and guava flavors, but I’m talking about 20 years ago.”

“The strawberry ice cream no longer has bits of strawberry in it,” she said.

Havana, a city of 3 million, has a burgeoning scene of private restaurants, part of Cuba’s economic opening. Some of the restaurants offer goat cheeses, parmesan and other artisanal dairy products, all made on the island. Some of it is quite tasty.

The provenance of the high-quality cheese is both secretive and legally murky. Word is that some dairymen have started off-the-books production.

That, too, would be consistent with Cuba’s economy.