WEST LAFAYETTE — It’s been 56 years since Cuba and the United States broke off diplomatic relations.
Because of this, not many people can say they’ve traveled to Cuba.
But Ryan Schroeder can.
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Schroeder, a junior at Purdue University and a 2013 New Palestine High School graduate, flew to the formerly closed-off country on a spring break trip to learn about Cuba’s agriculture. Schroeder traveled along with Steve Hallett, a Purdue botany professor, as well as four other faculty members and 22 students to the Caribbean island to learn about how its citizens handle agriculture, natural resources and social systems.
The group traveled from the airport in Havana to Vinales, one of the prime tobacco-growing regions, before traveling to Las Terrazas, a biological diversity park. Then, the group visited the Bay of Pigs before returning to spend time in Havana.
Faculty members wanted to get to Cuba before things started to change because of the improving relations between the communist nation and the United States.
“It was amazing to see a country that nobody here in the U.S. knows what it looks like and demystify the rumors,” said Schroeder, a student in the Purdue College of Agriculture.
Schroeder’s father, Aubrey Schroeder, instilled a love of the outdoors in him and his sister, Lauren at a young age, said his mother, Carol Friesen.
She said it is exciting that Schroeder got to see Cuba as it is before it is changed by Western influence.
It wasn’t as simple as booking a trip online, since there are still many travel restrictions and rules about traveling to Cuba.
Faculty members had to work through U.S. intermediaries with the government-run tourism department in Cuba to arrange the trip more than a year in advance, said Marcos Fernandez, Purdue University College of Agriculture associate dean.
“You can’t just make last-minute plans,” he said. “We had wanted to meet with university students and staff there, and that didn’t happen.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba didn’t have the resources to get fertilizer or tractor parts, Schroeder said, so farmers mostly still use oxen and plows.
Cuban farmers are distinguished by environmental stewardship and good land management, he said.
“It’s amazing to see how much they were able to produce with what we consider primitive resources,” he said, adding that the Cuban farmers he met are optimistic about how opening up dialogue with the United States can improve agriculture in Cuba. “They are definitely interested in getting more knowledge on how to produce. They are pretty well content with maintaining these organic types of agriculture; they’ve seen the damage that mechanized agriculture did in the past.”
Soviet agriculture was disastrous for the Cuban landscape, Schroeder said, and Cubans haven’t forgotten. The farmers he spoke with are interested in data to back up their current organic, beast of burden-based farming practices but are wary of pesticides and other aspects of modern farming.
Fernandez said in addition to the organic farming, he noticed a large amount of fallow land, despite the fact that Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food.
Schroeder said the Cuban landscapes were incredibly beautiful, and the agriculture was very diverse — farmers grow pineapples, plantains, tobacco, leafy greens and some corn.
Near the Bay of Pigs, the group visited the Zapata swamp, the largest wetland in the Caribbean. They went birding and saw 30 different species in two hours, including a fleeting glimpse of a bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world.
Upon his return, Schroeder shared his knowledge and experiences with two student groups — Dani’s Dreams Outdoor Center at Zion Lutheran School and the AP environmental science class taught by Brittany Bennett at New Palestine High School.
It’s hard to describe how interesting and enjoyable the trip was, Schroeder said. From laying in a hammock at the Bay of Pigs, writing a report on his laptop, to watching a man hand-roll a Cuban cigar, it was a singular experience.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “It was a fast week, though.”
Ryan Schroeder is a 2013 New Palestine High School graduate and a junior at Purdue University. He was recently named the outstanding junior in natural resources and environmental management at the College of Agriculture, said associate dean Marcos Hernandez.
“He is very inquisitive,” Hernandez said about Schroeder. “He likes discovery, he likes challenges, and he is well-versed in the grand challenges that await our state, our country and our world.”
Hernandez has known the student since he was pondering coming to Purdue, he said.
“He’s very, very engaged in his education,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to be around him… He’s one that has fully engaged and taken full advantage of what it means to have a premier college experience.”