GUIRA DE MELENA, Cuba - In a country where almost everyone works for the communist state, dairy farmer Jesus Diaz is his own boss. He likes it that way - and so does the government.
Living on a plot of land just big enough to graze four dairy cows, Diaz produces enough milk to sell about four quarts a day to the state.
This is independent production on a tiny scale, but it has proved so efficient that Cuba has decided on a major expansion of its program to distribute underused and fallow farmland to private farmers and cooperatives.
"It's a way for the land to end up in the hands of those who want to produce. I see it as a very good thing," said Diaz, 45. He received his land and cows from the state in 1996, and now hopes to get access to more property.
The government is preparing for a "massive distribution of land," said Orlando Lugo, president of Cuba's national farming association.
Private farmers have begun receiving land for the cash crops of coffee and tobacco, and will soon be able to lease state land for other crops. The idea is to revolutionize farming, a tiny plot at a time.
While attention has focused on President Raul Castro's crowd-pleasing moves to allow any Cuban who can afford it to buy a cell phone or stay in a luxury hotel, farmland distribution has been less noticed and is potentially much more important for easing chronic food shortages.
The bet is that farmers will do better on their own than toiling for state-run agricultural enterprises, which suffer from red tape, bad planning, and lack of funding.
"The authorities, they leave you alone and let you produce," said Aristides Ramon de Machado, who got permission to plant bananas, papaya and guava in a lot by his home in Boca Ciega, east of Havana. De Machado grows only enough for his family to eat and is prohibited from selling any surplus.
But he said: "Seeing the fruits of your own labor gives you pleasure in ways that working for someone else does not."
Fidel Castro's revolutionaries seized all large farms for the state after toppling dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Independent farmers still face rules about what and how much they can plant, and risk losing their land if they fail to meet government production quotas. They are also required by law to sell any surplus to farmers' markets.
Increasing food production has been a top priority for 76-year-old Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother as president in February.
While distributing farmland to individuals has been tried before in Cuba, this time the government seems willing to give up more control to get better results.
For example, it has authorized state stores to sell supplies directly to farmers - a key concession, since for decades individuals had trouble legally obtaining so much as a shovel. The state also is providing free fertilizer and feed.
This time, local farming associations are being empowered to oversee the land reallocation, once the prerogative of the Agricultural Ministry in Havana, although Lugo said the municipal delegations still must report to a new "central control center" lest land distribution "degenerate into chaos."
Cuba spends $1.6 billion annually on food imports, a third of them from the United States, which exempts food and farm exports from its embargo of the island.
Cuba even imports 82 percent of the $1 billion in rice, powdered milk and other staples it then rations to the public at subsidized prices - an astonishingly high figure for such a fertile country.
At farmers' markets, basics such as cabbage and oranges are almost always available, but tomatoes and lettuce disappear during the rainy summer, and imported apples are considered a rare delicacy.
State-controlled cooperatives operate like modern mega-farms on huge swaths of land, often using heavy equipment and sophisticated irrigation systems. The cooperatives control all kinds of crops, including signature products such as sugar, though the high-quality tobacco that goes into Cuba's famous cigars is already mostly in private hands.
But many cooperatives are losing money and failing to meet production quotas. Their workers have little incentive to improve things, since wages remain low no matter how well the farms do.
Meanwhile, the 250,000 private Cuban farmers must plant and pick their crops by hand, plowing with oxen and watering with buckets.
In Guira de Melena, 30 miles south of Havana, El Guateque is one of three supply stores islandwide allowed to sell supplies directly to private farmers.
It offers small items such as gloves, machetes, hoes and horse bridles.