Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Cuban Inventor Turns Trash Into Farm Tools

A solitary man trudges through a palm-lined corn field in the Cuban countryside, pulling behind him a rickety contraption that President Raul Castro would love.

The man, Yolando Perez Baez, is showing off his latest invention, a spindly, spider-like piece of equipment that sprays pesticide along six rows of crops, instead of the one row he could dose using his usual backpack fumigator.

With the backpack, Perez says he would have to walk five miles and take six hours to finish the field. The new equipment allows him to do it in one hour and walk less than a mile.

In other words, it fits right in with Castro's quest to cut budget-draining food imports by making Cuban agriculture more efficient and productive.

More than five decades of revolution, and the necessity and isolation that have accompanied it, have made Cubans both skilled at improvisation and a little eccentric, none more so than Perez, 47.

Using parts scrounged from local trash dumps he jokingly calls his "warehouse," Perez has pieced together primitive equipment to spray pesticides, start balky irrigation machinery and speed the harvest of potatoes.

He even wears a hat of his own creation that protects his face from the sun, but looks like a cross between a Chinese peasant hat and something a space alien would wear.

These are not high-tech creations, but, like much else in Cuba, simple and functional, rooted in common sense and the need to make do with what is available. They do not eliminate the back-breaking manual labor that dominates Cuban farm life, but reduce it.

His motor starter is a study in elegant simplicity and addresses a serious need in a country where major equipment tends to be antiquated and often in need of parts that are costly and hard to get.


"Eighty percent of the motors here, in this municipality at least, don't have batteries, don't have starters. It's the first thing to break and you have to buy them in hard currency, which is very difficult," Perez said.

So, Perez, an agronomist engineer who wears the stained work clothes of a man that spends a lot of time in the workshop, developed what looks like a small oil rig equipped with a heavy weight.

The weight, tied to a rope that is wrapped around the engine crankshaft, is lifted up by the rig and dropped. The fall pulls the rope and cranks the engine to life.

He has sold eight of the apparatuses for the equivalent of just over $100 each.

One of his customers, Jorge Suarez, praised the machine after it started a massive diesel engine for his irrigation system. As water poured out of a pipe into his cabbage field, he said, "If we don't invent what we invent, then we would be in bad shape. Look, if this man doesn't invent this, I don't know (what we would do)."

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, but Perez said it was something slightly different.

"The main thing is to be faced with the problem," he said.

Perez works at the "First of May" agricultural cooperative in Guira de Melena, which is about 35 miles west of Havana.

Under reforms by Castro, farmers are making good money, said coop president Jose Miguel Gonzalez said, but only spend it on new equipment when they are convinced it works. The jury was still out on Perez' new fumigator, he said.

Not to worry, said Perez. He has other machines in the works, including a revolving sprinkler system, and, in the end, each invention is just another small step toward a better Cuba.

With "a little that I put here, and another little bit that another Cuban puts there, the economy grows," he said. "The small things have to be noted because sometimes they appear insignificant, but together they are a lot."

Friday, 2 November 2012

Golden Harvest Vegetables For Health

Yellow and orange are some of the colors of autumn. They are also seen in the colors of the fall harvest in the form of pumpkin, winter squash, carrots and sweet potato. These delicious additions to your diet not only provide a wide range of nutritional benefits, but are an example of being able to eat seasonally and locally. Another plus is that they can be stored without refrigeration for long periods of time.

When it comes to nutrition, these vegetables have a lot in common. Because of their orange color, they are full of beta carotene. This nutrient has health benefits of its own, but can turn into vitamin A as needed by the body. These nutrients are important for eye and skin health, as well as for many other body tissues. They also play a role in the immune system.

Orange vegetables contain many other antioxidants, such as lutein, zeaxanthin, and alpha carotene that help protect the body from free radicals (a cause of tissue damage). These and other nutrients found in the orange vegetables fall under the heading of "phytonutrients" —— nutrients found in plant foods that contribute to optimal health that we are just beginning to learn about.

The antioxidants in these vegetables have the potential to benefit health conditions such as reduced risk of some cancers. They are important for growth, development and health in babies and children/teens. For adults, they contribute to overall health and reduced risk of tissue breakdown.

Vitamin C, K, E and several B vitamins are also found in orange vegetables, as are many minerals — potassium, iron, magnesium, manganese and copper. These nutrients have many jobs in the body.

When it comes to blood pressure, current guidelines recommend reducing our intake of sodium, while consuming more potassium. The orange vegetables are especially high in potassium.

These vegetables are great sources of fiber, as well. Higher fiber intakes can help lower cholesterol numbers and assist with blood pressure and blood sugar regulation. Fiber can also help with weight control because it adds bulk at a meal, meaning we feel fuller and overall may eat less. It also slows digestion so the fuel from a meal or snack lasts longer and we may feel the need to eat less often.

The soluble fiber found in these foods appears to be better tolerated by persons with irritable bowel syndrome as compared to the rougher fibers. It can also be helpful for persons with constipation issues.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends that adults consume four to seven cups of orange vegetables a week (depending on the total amount of calories consumed). With regard to the new "My Plate" that has replaced the Food Pyramid, including more of these vegetables can help you to reach the goal of making half your plate veggies. Think back about your food intake this past week. How did you do with these nutrient-packed colorful vegetables?

If you are a little behind in achieving the recommendations, browse through the produce section this week and choose a few of these golden veggies to take home. Numerous recipes are available online. Because of their sweet (and in some cases nutty) flavor, they blend well with both sweet and savory foods.

All can be baked or steamed — whole, bite-sized, or mashed. Bite-sized pieces can be tossed with a little olive oil (maybe with a sprinkle of minced fresh herbs or other seasoning) and roasted in the oven until tender.

With the colder weather, they are a sweet and hearty addition to soups, stews, and chili. Roasting them before adding them to a soup adds even more flavor. They pair well with fruit like apples in a soup or add a contrast to the hot spices — cumin, chili powder or curry — in savory dishes.

Try simmering cubes of butternut squash and carrots with water, diced tomatoes, onions, coriander, cumin, turmeric, ground ginger, and a dash of cayenne pepper in a covered pot and cook until tender. Then serve over cooked quinoa or brown rice and sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro.

Add some pureed pumpkin or orange squash to chowder for added nutrients and a nice golden color. Slip some into a muffin batter, pancake or waffle batter, or yeast dough bread. Spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves can be added as well. Another option is to add pureed carrot, squash or pumpkin to tomato sauce and serve over whole grain pasta.

Pureed pumpkin or squash added to low-fat ricotta cheese and a dash of nutmeg makes a great filling for ravioli. Cooked squash can be added to a veggie lasagna, too.

Grated carrot can be added to muffins or other quick breads. It can be added to cooked grains like rice, for a dash of color. It can also add nutrients and moisture when used to make burgers or meatloaf.

For dessert, try a pumpkin or winter squash custard — like pumpkin pie without the crust. This provides the nutrients from the orange vegetables and milk while cutting down on the fat and calories. Try using low fat milk or low fat evaporated milk and reduce the sugar to save even more calories. A pumpkin cheesecake is another seasonal dessert that can be made with fat-free cream cheese and less sugar to lower the calorie count.

So do yourself a favor and take advantage of the delicious, colorful, and nutritious orange autumn vegetables.