Getting to the Root of Farming

For the past year or two, I have been attempting to grow a select number of herbs and vegetables in my own backyard.But despite my best efforts, I just never seem to have enough time to “plough the fields.” So instead, I regularly visit the Market at the Grounds on Saturday mornings to pick up whatever is in season and spend a few moments living vicariously through the farmers around me.

I recently spent an afternoon with Hamlin Stephenson, a local farmer who has been in the industry since he retired from construction three years ago. Before then, he enjoyed home-grown vegetables and fruit from his own backyard for more than 40 years.

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Hamlin (left) with notable chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain at the annual Cayman Cookout event (Photo Credit: Cayman Compass)

Hamlin is one of many farmers who are faithful to their fields, dedicating a wealth of time, energy and finances to the laborious task of agriculture in the Cayman Islands.

Now retired, Hamlin has more time to dedicate to his farm and has expanded his offerings.“I started out growing pumpkin, sweet potato, cassava, plantain, banana, mango, watermelon, avocado and callaloo,” he said. “Today, the farm also includes tomatoes, cabbage, bok choy, yellow honeydew melon, cucumber, lettuce, pomegranate and butternut squash.”

Hamlin’s Farm, which he operates with only one other farmer, is spread over some 12 acres of land just behind the home he shares with his wife, Hope, in Lower Valley, Grand Cayman.

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Photo Credit: Offshorecpa.blogspot.com

“[Farming] is the only way people can feed themselves,” Hamlin said. “Without the farmers in Cayman, we would be supporting farmers from other places in the world. It just makes sense for us to farm here.”

With scores of restaurants offering every cuisine imaginable, the Cayman Islands is often regarded as the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.But many of these restaurateurs import the vast majority of their ingredients from all over the world, as the Islands have been unable to provide what they needed. Fortunately, as the concepts of sustainability and smarter living become increasingly popular, local families, restaurants and supermarkets are recognising the value of locally grown food products.

In fact, Hamlin’s Farm supplies local produce to a number of restaurants across the island, such as The Sunshine Grill, which is particularly interested in his tomatoes. Cracked Conch is also a regular customer, and Bamboo Restaurant is always on standby for his lettuce leaves. “We also supply some hotels and both Foster’s Food Fair and Kirk Supermarket every week with what fruits and vegetables are in season, as well as meat from our own goats.”

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Agricultural cultivation in Cayman is not a new initiative by any means. In what is commonly referred to as “the olden days,” however, the ownership of land in order to farm produce, grow fruit trees and tend to farm animals demonstrated a certain level of wealth in the community. Ground provisions primarily benefited individual families and were not typically sold. Instead, people opted to share their produce with neighbouring families, creating a close-knit community. Ironically, today’s slow shift towards the traditions of yesteryear may signify that the growing and eating of local produce is increasingly taking root again.

William Ebanks, another avid farmer who has been in the business for as long as Hamlin, is a well-known produce supplier to restaurants and grocers across Grand Cayman. The seamanturned- farmer began earnestly farming in the mid- 1980s and is most popular for his fruit stand — Willie’s Fresh Fruits and Juices — located just east of the Grand Harbour shopping centre in Red Bay.

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Willie, as he is affectionately known, and his wife Zelmalee farm over 200 acres of land in the tranquil district of North Side, where they raise pigs, chickens, cows and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Over the years, the couple has developed a strong relationship with both Foster’s Food Fair and Kirk Supermarket, ensuring the stores have a bounty of oranges, June plums, pumpkins and other fresh produce.

“We farm because we are passionate about farming,” Zelmalee told me during our chat at the Market at the Grounds. “You really have to love farming to do it, but it is so rewarding when you can go out on your farm and bring home your own fruits and vegetables.

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Photo Credit: offshorecpa.blogpost.com

“I didn’t start out with a love for the business. I was a teacher for many years, and the principal of East End Primary School when I retired. And now I’m farming — and I really love doing this!”

Willie and Zelmalee are committed vendors at the Market at the Grounds, where their cakes, cookies, tarts, juices, jams and traditional hot meals, such as ackee with callaloo and green banana, are served alongside their selection of produce.

“Thankfully, we have a steady following of customers at the Market,” Zelmalee said when I asked her how heavily the farm relied on the various markets to sell its crop. “We see a lot of the same faces every week.”

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The Market at Camana Bay is another popular location for finding fresh produce, eggs and meat (Photo Credit: Camana Bay)

The Market at the Grounds provides a central location for farmers such as Willie and Zelmalee, Hamlin, and others to gather and sell their produce as a source of income. Recognising its importance to the farmers, crafters and artisans who gather here each week, the Department of Agriculture and the Cayman Islands Government plans to further develop the Market at the Grounds. Designed by noted architect John Doak, the future pavilion will include an agricultural heritage museum and hall of fame, a kids’ zone, agricultural fields and livestock areas, an education and training centre, a public park, and nature trails. Set to be developed over a number of phases, the new Market promises to offer its patrons an experience unique to the culture of the Cayman Islands.

While the Market at the Grounds is the largest fresh produce market of its kind in Grand Cayman, there are a number of vibrant markets offering patrons an escape from the hustle and bustle of the supermarkets along Seven Mile Beach and in George Town. These quaint spots offer a more leisurely shopping experience synonymous with “Cayman-time” — slow and steady. They also bestow upon the community the satisfaction of making healthy food choices while supporting local merchants, and the reward of working towards a more sustainable Cayman Islands.

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Photo Credit: offshorecpa.blogpost.com

MARKETS OF GRAND CAYMAN

MARKET AT THE GROUNDS
Stacey Watler Agricultural Pavilion, Lower Valley
Saturdays, 7 a.m.-12 p.m.

At the Market at the Grounds, farmers offer an array of locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables along with a selection of unique and intriguing specialty items, like Indian cucumber, Thai eggplant, Holy Mole peppers, Indian summer chard, Chinese watercress, lemon basil and pumpkin flower. You can find both Willie’s Fresh Fruits and Juices and Hamlin’s Farm here.In addition to produce, organic eggs, fresh fish, goat and turtle meat, specialty sausages, and fresh, never-frozen whole chickens can be purchased. Also available are traditional hot dishes and locally produced jellies, jams, hot and mild pepper sauces, and even handmade crafts, paintings and Caymanite jewellery.

CAMANA BAY FARMERS MARKET
Market Street, Camana Bay
Wednesdays, 12 p.m.-7 p.m.

The Farmers Market at Camana Bay is smaller in size, but packs just as much punch as the Market at the Grounds. It is conveniently located in the heart of Camana Bay, where dining, fashion, entertainment and shopping combine for an experience distinctive to the lively town. Only a short walk from most resorts and condominiums in the area, the market’s location near Seven Mile Beach and evening hours give visitors easy access to Cayman’s own organic produce. Willie’s Fresh Fruits and Juices is a regular participant here.

REFLECTIONS FRESH MARKET
Godfrey Nixon Way, George Town
Fridays, 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m.

The Reflections Fresh Market, a regular market for Hamlin’s Farm, is open to all farmers and offers produce grown from local gardens of all shapes and sizes. Centrally located in George Town, the market features an array of seasonal fruits, vegetables, beans and other locally grown produce in its open-air market.Fried fish and fritters, locally made soaps and candles, and native plants can also be found.

SUNDAY GREENMARKET
35 Doubloon Drive, Bodden Town
Sundays, 2 p.m.-6 p.m.

The agro-tourism setting at Plantation House Organic Gardens in Bodden Town comprises a garden of fruits, vegetables and herbs, water features, gazebos, a nursery, and garden shop.The freshly picked produce at the Sunday GreenMarket are from its gardens and, in some cases, customers are allowed to pick their own produce, which can include pineapple, coffee beans, sugarcane and dragon fruit. Visit any of the markets in Grand Cayman for a vast selection of fresh produce, meats and seafood grown and harvested right here in the Cayman Islands.Shoppers are encouraged to come early for the best selection and do their part in preserving the environment and promote sustainable living by bringing their own shopping bags.

. . .

Published: Skies Magazine, March 2012
Cover Photo Credit: Camana Bay

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