The hugely popular agriculture shows in Grand Cayman (the 47th annual event) and Cayman Brac in March, and in Little Cayman on May 3, make it clear something exciting is coming up from the ground here. And it goes beyond the range of heirloom tomatoes and sweet peppers now locally produced, and the strains of beef cattle and goats some farmers have nurtured for conditions on these islands.
What many people have come to realize is that all the fresh and healthful flavors featured at the agriculture shows not only improve the quality of life for Cayman residents, but also give visitors more to enjoy. Local food production may also help provide better protection from the financial blows that spiking import costs can inflict whenever the world’s economy shifts off kilter, as in the recent recession. Imported food prices can swing dramatically, cutting into family budgets and lifting the prices at restaurant and food-store cash registers.
But why now, at a time of relative economic stability, does local food production become a hot topic of conversation in Cayman? Answers vary among government and outside agricultural experts, farmers, restaurateurs and food enthusiasts.
One explanation is changing preferences. In recent years throughout the Western world, the value of homegrown produce and meats has increased. Local food is fresher, more secure from price jumps and cheaper to get to market. And tastier, more sensible meals result when their ingredients come from one’s own geographic region.
This theme, which foodies refer to as “the locovore movement,” has become a powerful force in restaurant cuisine and a big concern among people who think about the world’s environment as much as they do about their own good health.
“It’s true on the face of it – local foods are fresher and healthier, and they’re just so much better on the palate. Plus, they also don’t need huge amounts of fuel to be transported all over creation before they get on somebody’s plate in Cleveland or Cayman or wherever,” says American super chef Michael Symon, an author and Food Network commentator who is frequently seen on “Iron Chef.”
In addition to his focus on taste, Symon is voicing an environmentalist position that more and more people in the food industry share. Today, Big Ag produces most of the food the world eats, on vast sugar plantations, endless grain fields, sprawling tomato fields, all close to railroad and shipping hubs that facilitate moving raw food from one part of the world to another.
Profit vs. taste
The main concern of Big Ag is profit for investors, not great explosions of taste in a diner’s mouth. It’s an agricultural system based on making money and transporting commodities from source to market. The locovore movement turns that model upside down. Food enthusiasts, small farmers, cooks, environmentalists and some economists like the local-grown idea because it’s friendlier to the environment and tastes like real food, not cardboard.
Still, each faction that has a hand in growing, processing, transporting and preparing food has its own take on how “local” (say, less than 100 miles from farm to table) has become such a key word in the culinary lexicon. There are the true believers. “I’m telling you, local is just everything,” says Thomas Tennant, a chef in Grand Cayman since 2010.
“I’ve been working like crazy in Cayman to encourage local produce and meats for restaurants, talking to farmers, asking them for more involvement in all kinds of food for our demanding diners,” Tennant says. He cooked for Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Camana Bay and, since a recent promotion, is a special operations executive with Genuine Hospitality Group, which owns that and other restaurants.
Not surprisingly, Tennant thinks it is chefs who have taken the lead in the locovore movement, both in Florida, where he now works at Genuine’s headquarters, and in Cayman, which he visits one or two times a month.
“Chefs are the ones who have been going out and knocking on farmers’ doors to get them to provide good, healthy food to serve on the islands. You have to be a bit of a psychologist, appeal to the local pride. Herbs, for instance, are a pride thing, Tennant says. “If you can get somebody to grow thyme just perfectly, that’s a big win. Everybody uses thyme. Somebody should focus on the perfect garnish, and it would outsell all the thyme that’s being imported in Cayman.”
Government has helped
He and other chefs, though, acknowledge that the government has helped encourage a local agricultural industry, small in scope, but increasingly vital.
Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, Speaker of the House, embraces the advice of international agricultural economists as well as professional chefs like Tennant. She has helped establish a policy of encouraging backyard farming and more in all three islands. In advance of the Little Cayman Agricultural Show on May 3, she emphasized the value of growing produce, even on the smallest of plots.
She calls Little Cayman “an ideal place to test the sustainability of the grow-what-you-eat-and-eat-what-you-grow concept.
“I am pleased,” she says, “that Little Cayman residents take the sustainability approach seriously.”
The rest of Cayman seems to have taken it seriously, too.
Consider how easy it is for people not in direct contact with the agriculture to forget where lunch comes from. The beef may be from Venezuela or Argentina, pork chops might have shipped here from Brazil or from the Port of New Orleans, following a trip down the Mississippi River.
The rice might have sat in containers aboard ships that, months ago, sailed from Indonesia. There, huge corporate farms might have grown and harvested and processed the crops under who-knows-what conditions. Certainly, much of their inherent nutritional value might have been stripped off in the transition.
Tennant points out that “we may not be able to grow everything we use in Cayman, but there’s a lot that we can. And we can make other choices. We like asparagus a lot, but when they’re out of season here, should we pay all that extra cost to buy them from Holland? Does that make sense? Let’s get what we can from here.”
Tennant also notes that Cayman is not uniformly a farm-friendly environment. The land is rocky; many months are insufferably hot for many crops; the soil, not great to begin with, can be saline from all the sea water surrounding these islands. The heat is hard on farm animals, including cattle, sheep and chickens, all of which wilt under the sun.
“People have worked with the soil, built it up, grow some things hydroponically, used raised beds,” Tennant says. “They do all kinds of things to make things right for their crops. They find ways to accommodate the farm animals.”
Kent Rankin, a life-long farmer who lives and works the land in Bodden Town, is all for that and has been expanding his acreage for almost 30 years to supply the local agricultural market. In 2014, as in several other years, he has been awarded Farmer of the Year at the ag show.
Certainly, Rankin – “Biggie Rankin” to many — toils hard at his vocation. “I started out with pigs, cows,” he says. “I ended up with goats, chickens, sheep.” But he has found markets for everything he has grown, every increasing yield, year after year.
Successful farmers like Rankin are a blessing for chefs like Tennant and the many others on Grand Cayman who seek local supplies. But also, many have roadside fresh-vegetable stands available to people who drive by and have a few dollars in their pockets. Prices compare favorably with what consumers find in bigger, more urban food markets. But what customers buy is usually freshly off the vine or out of the soil.
All the ways local agriculture in Cayman satisfies people’s sense of taste while also providing them with more nutritious meals is clearly important to those who dine out or take special care about what they serve at their own tables.
But there are other levels at which the Cayman Islands benefits from growing at least a good fraction of its own food. It’s wrapped up in the seemingly abstract notions of economics and international politics, but it really boils down to common sense.
Patrick Kendall, senior research economist at the Caribbean Development Bank in Barbados, has spent a lifetime studying the money game of agriculture as it plays among nation-states. He advises governments throughout the region on agricultural policy and also connects with investors. His take: It’s a good thing for all states to encourage nutritional self-sufficiency, and Cayman is no exception.
In a landmark study a decade ago, he advised Caribbean states, many, like Cayman, net importers of food, to develop their own agricultural resources as much as possible, including by urging private and public investment.
He understands well that some – including Jamaica and Colombia, Guyana and Belize – are lucky enough to have abundant land fit for farming and grazing. Others, including some “some smaller islands, have tended to depend heavily on imports, using revenue from tourism to finance those imports.”
A few of the bigger countries have created significant export industries through farming, with crops like bananas – but such dependence on single crops can be dangerous. Currently, diseases threaten output at some banana plantations.
Kendall urges the development of more diverse crops, even if on a backyard-garden basis, in every Caribbean state.
“What is clear is that there’s increasing demand for food from rapidly growing emerging economies everywhere. That will continue to be the case, increasing the price of food over time,” he said. “In addition to that, from time to time, there have been withdrawals of food from many exporting countries so they can feed their own people.” That can result from crop failures, internal monetary issues, natural catastrophes and more.
“When that happens, then suddenly, food prices can spike, causing great hardship. In some parts of the world, there have been food riots, social instability. It’s a very serious issue.” Kendall’s advice is for all states to insist upon some degree of childhood education that focuses on agriculture in some way that teaches kids how to grow their own food. “Kids should learn about agriculture as a life skill. We all should have these skills to know how to plant, even if just in the yard.”
Kendall also suggests that states in a region like the Caribbean should work out the details to amass and then share food reserves, so that “when rice, grain, corn, soy beans should suffer a supply shock, you can then access these from a food bank. If you have to buy at a time of a supply shock, the prices, obviously, skyrocket, and it becomes very hard to get what you need.”
In Cayman, the question might well be: What do we do if the price goes up? Way up?
Keeping local agriculture in the public’s consciousness makes it easier for a population to shift to its own farming efforts if the need arises.
From another perspective, developing and then supporting local agriculture in a place like Cayman can just be a way to get stunning meals.
“If you can get fresh eggs – much, much better than those in the refrigerated bin at the supermarket.” Says Chef Tennant, “that’s a real bonus.” Same with breadfruit and tomatoes.
“I mean, in the past, the traditional Caymanian meals drew from backyard vegetable gardens, seafood, chickens from the pen. This place has a wonderful cuisine.” He ruminates on the meals he can prepare in the Cayman tradition: fresh conch during the season, a Cayman entree supreme. Fried snapper with pickled vegetables, wahoo escabeche.
As the locovore chef dreams on of splendid ingredients, all within short reach, he hopes this compelling trend continues in the Cayman Islands.