In the early days of the Cayman Islands, before packaged consumer goods were readily available, Caymanians had to live off the land and the bounty of the sea.
As the country grew and economic activity increased through the 1960s, more consumer goods came, from the U.S. in particular. Then in July, 1977, a new port facility opened in George Town Harbour capable of allowing large cargo container ships to dock, reducing the need for local produce.
For the next three decades, finding good local vegetables available on a commercial basis in the Cayman Islands wasn’t easy. There were some farmers producing various crops, especially tubers and gourds, which collectively make up a large part of the food group known as “breadkind” in Cayman, but not a lot in the way of vegetables.
Beyond the limited variety, crop yields were relatively low and quality was inconsistent. Local produce was available at some of the small convenience stores, but the large supermarkets spurned Cayman’s farmers in favor of imports from the U.S. and Central America, from where steady supplies of vegetables with predictable quality were available.
A couple of farmers’ markets in George Town operated, but largely because of the inconsistencies in quality, they did not have widespread appeal.
In early 2007, when the local farmers were still trying to get back on their feet after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, then Minister of Agriculture Kurt Tibbetts made some important decisions that would set in motion a revival of local produce that has since eclipsed even the early days of Cayman.
Market at the Grounds
As part of the 40th annual Cayman Islands Agriculture Show in 2007, Minister Tibbetts decided to create a marketplace where attendees could purchase locally grown or raised products. Although local produce had always been a part of the Agriculture Show, it had previously only been on display – not for sale.
The idea was for the special Agriculture Show marketplace to launch a regular Saturday market, known as Market at the Grounds, at the Stacy Watler Pavilion in Lower Valley. Minister Tibbetts also said the government was committed to providing farmers with various material and knowledge-based resources to help them improve the yields and quality of what they produced.
The market was a hit. The idea was to let demand dictate the frequency of the market, but it was quickly decided that it was popular enough to be held every week.
For several farmers, having a regular place to sell their produce to residents was the turning point.
“It created a demand for local produce,” said farmer Errol Watler in 2011. “Before that, I had problems selling most of my produce.”
Joel Walton, another regular at the market, took Watler’s comment even further: “Before that, I couldn’t give my produce away.”
Hamlin Stephenson, one of the farmers who sold at the old farmers’ market on Huldah Avenue in George Town, said the opening of the Market of the Grounds not only provided him with a big boost in his vegetable sales, it kept him in the livestock business as well.
“After [Hurricane] Ivan, I didn’t get back into goats in a big way,” he said. “I was down to as little as six animals and I was about to get rid of them. Then Market at the Grounds opened and it created a demand again.”
These days, Stephenson sells more goats than he ever did.
“I cannot keep up with the demand for goat between the restaurants and local demand,” he said.
The Market at the Grounds not only increased awareness of local produce with residents, it piqued the interest of some restaurateurs. By this time, the farm-to-table and Slow Food movements had started to gain traction in the United States and some chefs were moving away from the molecular cuisine trend to fresh ingredient-based dishes. One such chef was American Dean Max, who served as the Brasserie Restaurant’s consultant and who was a strong Slow Food advocate. In 2009, Chef Max was able to convince Brasserie owners Lisa and Clarence “King” Flowers to go “all in” on a farm-to-table dining concept, including creating Cayman’s first serious chef’s garden right on the property, going so far as to plant vegetables around the light standards in the parking lot.
In early 2010, the Brasserie started hosting monthly Harvest Dinners using all local, seasonal vegetables, and proteins. Running from November through April, the dinners proved very popular, usually selling out well in advance, and they introduced many non-Cayman born diners to local ingredients – like goat, callaloo, seasoning peppers, ackee, and others – they had never had before.
In mid-2010, Chef Michael Schwartz – another farm-to-table advocate – opened Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Camana Bay, creating another restaurant where Grand Cayman residents could get local ingredients. Soon, other restaurants on the island joined in, and today many restaurants on Grand Cayman buy fresh produce from the local farmers, creating a steady demand for their produce.
With that demand, however, came supply responsibilities because in order for restaurants to cater menu items around local produce, they had to have a reliable supply, even if the menu item was seasonal. Cayman’s farmers then took the next step, investing to be able to increase production.
Although some of the farmers continued planting the same crops they always did, honing in on varieties that did well in Cayman’s climate and conditions, others tried new things. One of those farmers was Patrick Panton, who studied ornamental horticulture at the University of South Florida.
In 2001, Panton had started East End Garden & Gifts in East End, selling mostly landscaping plants and trees. Although he carved out a market niche for himself, Hurricane Ivan destroyed much of his plantings and, being far from Grand Cayman’s population centers, it never rebounded sufficiently. Panton found a 10-and-a-half acre parcel of land off Lookout Road in Bodden Town and decided to grow vegetables.
“I got into growing vegetables out of necessity,” he said, adding that he decided to grow non-traditional crops to sell at Market at the Grounds.
“I saw people had their favorite vendors, and the only way I was going to make a living was to either lower my price, and that would have made enemies, or go in a different direction and offer something different.”
Panton decided to try Asian vegetables that would grow well in Cayman’s climate, things like long beans, wing beans, bottle squash, and a variety of leafy greens. When he first started bringing his produce to the Market at the Grounds, many people didn’t know what it was. However, people bought it and liked it, encouraging him to try different plants. Over the past six years, Panton has been one of the more innovative farmers, trying new crops like eggplant, red and green okra, bitter melon, mustard greens, zucchini, carrots, beets, and many varieties, colors and sizes of tomatoes. Some of the crops have worked, some have not.
In addition, Panton has started raising chickens for meat and for eggs, adding to the local proteins available to go with the local beef, turtle meat, and always ample amounts of seafood available.
In late 2014, Panton formed a partnership with Rob Mastronardi to create a hydroponic greenhouse that produces vegetables, including seedless cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes.
The greenhouse production will extend the season for some vegetables, like tomatoes, which usually only bear late fall through late spring in Cayman.
“They won’t have the same flavor of the tomatoes grown in the ground, but we hope [the greenhouse] can supply tomatoes the whole year,” he said.
Other farmers are looking for their own niche markets. Bruce Mico of CayFresh has a hydroponic farm in North Side that is producing culinary herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, mint, dill, sage and chives, as well as head lettuce and mixed greens.
In 2014, Stephenson grew broccoli – it worked well – and Brussels sprouts – it flopped – and he will continue to experiment with crops that consumers want.
Between the additional investments he’s put into his ventures and the failed crops resulting from his experimentation, Panton still hasn’t seen a big return. However, he now supplies more than a dozen restaurants with fresh produce on a regular basis and, with the greenhouse enterprise now working well, he sees better days ahead.
“One of these days, I might actually make some money,” he said with a laugh.
To make money though, the farmers need increased sales and one key in doing that is getting the supermarkets to buy more local produce. That is starting to happen.
Getting into the grocery stores has always been a challenge for local farmers for several reasons. First of all, there were supply, quality and, in some cases, packaging issues. Beyond that was the matter of price, with grocery stores needing to buy at bulk wholesale prices that are much lower than the going price at the farmers’ markets.
Still, as Panton pointed out, when certain crops are being harvested at rates that outstrip farmers’ market demand, it’s better to sell at a lower price than have the crops rot on the ground.
However, the increased demand at the farmers’ markets puts pressure on the supermarkets to have local produce, which, regardless of price, is fresher – and usually tastier – than something picked in a foreign country, shipped to a dock somewhere, and then delivered by ship to the Cayman Islands.
All three of Cayman’s major supermarkets – Foster’s Food Fair, Hurley’s and Kirk Market – now sell more local produce than ever before.
Kirk Market General Manager Craig Gaskill said he has an agriculture background and he believes that supporting local farmers is good for the economy and the global environment – by reducing the carbon footprint of delivery – and that local produce simply tastes better because it’s fresher.
“That builds more loyalty from consumers as well,” he said.
In addition to stocking local produce in a “local” section, Kirk Market now puts some of the local produce right on the displays next to overseas produce. Gaskill said that because of the quality and good supply of produce like Panton’s English cucumbers and Mico’s basil and oregano, Kirk Market has stopped ordering those products from overseas altogether.
Gaskill said that during Cayman’s peak growing season months, Kirk Market is up to about 8 or 9 percent of its produce from local farmers, and he hopes to increase that number.
“I’ve been going out to visit the farms and talking to the farmers about new opportunities where we could go in the future,” he said. “I would like to go local as much as possible.”
In addition to increased buying of local produce by the supermarkets, the farmers are selling at a variety of venues now.
Although traffic at the Market at the Grounds has suffered with the opening of other venues, it still is a solid early morning market on Saturdays.
A weekly farmers and artisans market started at Camana Bay in 2010 and now attracts large crowds on Wednesdays. Panton and another farmer, Clarence McLaughlin, set up stalls at Camana Bay on every Saturday as well.
Joel Walton has staff that sells from a location in town, and, depending on the season, sometimes is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons. Stephenson sells in town on Fridays, and other farmers set up stalls in a variety of George Town locations on different days.
Stephenson is also the driving force behind a new farmers’ market in the old location on Huldah Avenue. The Farmers and Artisans Market will be a covered, open air pavilion with up to 32 stalls when completed in 2015.
During the summer months, Stephenson said it might be open only several times a week, but during the winter months, almost every day.
Stephenson said he’s not surprised at all about the way local produce has taken off on Grand Cayman.
“Many moons ago, back when I was president of the Agricultural Society, I made a statement that’s still true today. I said if we don’t support the agriculture here, we had to support it somewhere else. We all have to eat, so we all need agriculture.”
As the idiom goes, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and based on how much more eating there has been of local produce, it must be proof of superior taste.
Panton doesn’t eat much else these days.
“I eat my produce daily,” he said with pride. “My refrigerator is full of my food. I consider it quality control.”