Growing local food comes naturally

A recent episode of a new television show starring celebrity chef Jamie Oliver showed the English chef quizzing a class of US schoolchildren on the names of various vegetables. Baffled by broccoli, many of them hadn’t a clue that French fries, for example, were made from potatoes.

Of course, the scene was shot to drive home a point for the show, and most likely subjected to some creative editing. But it did a good job of demonstrating how the connection between people and their food may be suffering in these days of supermarket frozen dinner aisles and fast food drive-throughs.

While the situation may not be quite so dire in Cayman with many families still holding connections to their forebears’ cultivation grounds, accessing local, organic produce has not been easy for the average person.

But thanks to people like Joel Walton, that’s changing.

Walton is a guerrilla farmer, an executive by day heading up the Maritime Authority, the body in charge of, among other things, registering ships.

Perhaps then it is no surprise that when he’s not at work, the father of six plants himself firmly on land and tackles his garden at his home, Plantation House.

The man definitely has a love for the land and its bounty.

“I have just under two acres of lawns and ornamental, herb, medicinal, fruit, nut and spice plantings,” says Walton.

That’s a lot of hoeing, weeding, watering, pruning and harvesting for what’s been a one-man show.

He says there are no plans to expand for now.

“We wish to share our experience with gardening in Cayman in limited growing spaces and to encourage others to do the same,” he says.

It runs in the family
He says his interest in gardening started with his father.

“Daddy was an avid grower and he practised traditional Caymanian ground provision farming on any plot of land to which he had access,” says Walton.

“Even if the land was only available during the time that he was constructing a home for someone, he would plant and reap what was available during that time, and then leave a “ground’ for the new homeowners.”

That attitude seems to have passed down to his son, who notes that he actually spent part of his Easter weekend helping out with some agricultural work for a friend.

It seems the green thumb and the willingness to experiment is what comes natural to him.

“I recall having a garden at my Aunt Vida’s house in Spot Bay, Cayman Brac at age five  or six  and started using raised beds (now also called grow boxes) in the early-1970’s at our homes off Smith Road and Crewe Road in George Town,” says Walton.

“I ate limited amounts of meats while growing up and always yearned for fresh, locally grown product to supplement my meals.”

He’s been interested in organic and sustainable techniques all his life, an authentic proponent of the global local food movement, made popular by chefs like Alice Waters and the book, The 100-mile Diet.

The slow and local food movements advocate raising food in as natural way as possible, and eating it in a way that respects its origins. Slow food’s name originates in the meaning of what it is not – fast food, which is seen by its proponents as going against certain principles that are bypassing the societal of benefits sitting down and enjoying home-cooked food together.

The local food movement aims to reduce factory farming’s global footprint by buying local and eating what’s in season where you live – the way raising food supposedly used to work before the days of refrigeration and jet planes.

But it’s no fad or fashion for Walton.

“Put simply, I ate the stuff that I grew and then later my children did the same so that made it an easy choice,” he says.

“Also, my gardens are where I live so sustainable practices are paramount in my mind at all times.”

People notice
 In the course of pursuing his pastime Walton has caught the attention of local foodies seeking organically grown fruits and vegetables, as well as restauranteurs looking for authentic, locally-grown produce to serve to their customers.

Walton was instrumental in the development of the Brasserie’s vegetable garden, which the chefs turn to daily at this time of year for their tomatoes, pumpkin and eggplant, for starters.

Recently, he hosted an event for the Cayman Islands Slow Food society. Guests not only got a tour of the property and some great tips on growing produce of their own, a number of local chefs and food aficionados served up a feast of locally-grown and produced fare, including many treasures from Walton’s own garden.

Walton says the response from local buyers toward local produce has been “unbelievably positive” from the individual consumer and the restaurants, albeit it has been somewhat milder from supermarkets, which is understandable.

Supermarkets must satisfy shoppers seeking consistency and reliability, and their business models depend on buying large shipments of produce that can be relied on for consistency, size, cost and quality.

For a small producer, it’s a near impossible task to meet these requirements, though some local produce and meat is certainly available from time to time. But for a greater variety, consumers can turn to farmers’ markets or private grocers willing to carry such products. In the end, it’s up to the consumer to act on the decision to go local.

But it’s not just about growing things for profit for Walton.

It also brings him relaxation and balance.

“Mr. Mike Simmons, a friend my Dad’s and later a friend of mine once said something while he walked around my yard that has stuck in my head,” says Walton.

“I quote, “with gardens like these to come home to Walton, no one can mess with you head”.  That sums it up best for me.”