Grocers, farmers in ‘Catch-22’

Some Cayman farmers are having difficulty getting their produce onto supermarket shelves according to Farmer’s Association President Errol Watler.

Though the situation is improving, Mr. Watler thinks supermarkets could be doing more to help.

Agricultural Expo

Farmers get to show off their crops each year at the Agricultural Expo. A weekly farmers market begins 11 August. Photo: File

‘It’s improving now but it’s not where it should be. We still have difficulty getting the supermarkets to accept it as a legitimate product and getting them to take us farmers seriously enough to work along with us.’

But two supermarkets have denied there is an issue. Both Kirk Supermarket and Fosters Food Fair-IGA say they like to stock as much local produce as possible. Hurley’s did not provide a comment at the time of going to press.

‘Local produce is definitely in a category of its own and we like to take it when we can,’ said Kirk Supermarket General Manager Renrick Christian.

Because many locally grown crops are only available on a seasonal basis, it is not possible to sell certain local products all the time, he said.

But when it is available, Mr. Christian believes Kirks offer local farmers a fair price.

‘If a local product is way out of line, we tell them the import price and encourage them to come closer to it.’

He said he could not recall an occasion when Kirk Supermarket had refused local produce because of a pricing issue.

North Side Farmer Zelmalee Ebanks said she is having no problem selling her produce to supermarkets. ‘They will pretty much take anything I can provide them,’ Mrs. Ebanks said.

But some farmers don’t agree.

Kent Rankin and Roger Ebanks both raised the issue with Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts at a meeting on the new Farmer’s Market recently.

They asked what government was doing to ensure supermarkets brought more Caymanian produce.

Mr. Tibbetts said he had raised the issue previously with the supermarkets and they had assured him they were happy to take local produce, provided consistent supply could be ensured.

‘We are not afraid to talk to them [the supermarkets], but we have to have…consistency in being able to supply.

‘I’m not telling you that the whole thing is over with but I’m telling you we’ve made some serious inroads. I’m not saying the situation is perfect,’ he said.

If farmers are really having a problem selling produce to supermarkets, the Government will have to consider talking to the supermarkets again, Mr. Tibbetts said.

Speaking on Tuesday, Mr. Watler said consistency of supply was a problem, but it runs both ways.

‘If we don’t have a market, if we have to throw our supplies away, we’re not going to grow the crop again,’ he said.

‘If people know they can sell their product there will be consistent supply – it’s a Catch-22 situation.

‘I’m a businessman; I understand it from both sides. I know if you are in business, you need to have a consistency of supply. We need to work together to get these things accomplished.’

Mr. Watler said the situation differs across supermarkets.

‘My understanding is that Fosters has a pretty good attitude toward buying local produce; they are one of the more helpful ones.’

Lazaro Hernandez, senior produce manager with Fosters Food Fair-IGA, said he is more than happy to buy produce from local farmers.

He just asks they let him know when it will be available so he can adjust his import orders accordingly.

Mr. Lazaro said many of his customers prefer to buy local produce, not just to support farmers, but because of superior freshness and quality.

The quality of some local produce, such as mango, sweet sop, neesberry, apple, banana, tomato and pumpkin cannot be matched by imports, he said.

But not everything can be purchased on Island, he added. Many crops that were wiped out by Hurricane Ivan have simply not been replanted.

‘We used to get excellent avocadoes locally, but after Hurricane Ivan, they have not been replanted. Now we have to import them.’

Mr. Watler said higher labour costs in Cayman make it difficult to compete with imported foods.

But he thinks many people want to buy local produce and are prepared to pay a premium for it.

‘Most of the stuff that comes from overseas is not as tasty as our stuff; it is not as nutritious or fresh.

‘Local produce is always more tasty and fresh because it is tree or vine ripened, whereas much of the stuff that comes from overseas is picked when it is green, it is gassed and then ripened.

‘We have better quality products, but we need to promote our products better so customers understand the benefits they are getting from our local products.’

Another selling point for Cayman produce is that it is usually exposed to fewer chemicals and pesticides than imported produce, he claimed.

Mr. Watler said farmers and supermarkets need to work together to promote Cayman produce.

In any event, the public will have a new opportunity to buy local produce when the Marketplace at the Grounds Farmer’s Market kicks off on 11 August at Stacey Walter Agricultural Pavilion, Lower Valley.

The weekly market will feature locally grown produce, seafood, processed food, bakery and dairy products, arts, crafts, music and souvenirs.

Mr. Watler said the new market will be a boon for Caymanian farmers.

‘The Farmer’s Market will help a lot of people sell their produce. I think it will help the farmers.’

Farmers will benefit from communicating directly with their customers, he said. ‘It means they will able to talk to the customers and know what the customers want.’

Mr. Watler expects the market will also give farmers an opportunity to sell products that cannot be sold to supermarkets because of low importation prices. Yam, gungo pea, coconut and cassava are a just few examples, he said.

To learn more

For more information on the Marketplace at the Grounds, call Brian Crichlow at the Agriculture Department on 947-3090.

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