Grand Cayman farmers are looking up to create a vegetable supply that needs little land, water and soil.
With limited space and feasibility for row crops, farmer Davy Ebanks started experimenting with vertical farming four years ago. Through a tower system created by U.S.-based company Verti-Gro, he now cultivates 22 plants in the space typically needed for just one.
On a three-and-a-half-acre property in Bodden Town, Mr. Ebanks runs four shaded growing houses where stacks of Styrofoam pots hold lettuce, cilantro, arugula, bok choy, Swiss chard and beets.
Much of this produce will reach customers the same day of harvest, selling at Kirk Market, Hurley’s and local restaurants.
“People are getting more health conscious and price conscious. There is absolutely no comparison between the locally grown stuff and the stuff that’s imported,” Mr. Ebanks said.
“Most of my customers say that the arugula that they import, they lose up to 30 percent of it because in transit it spoils. So there’s a lot of waste. Whereas with this, it’s harvested the same morning.”
The growing house design allows Mr. Ebanks to minimize his electric and water use. He said his electric bill for the entire farm is about $28 a month.
A timed drip-irrigation system filters water and nutrients down through coconut fiber, used as a substitute for soil. Overhead shade cloth protects crops from sun, wind and rain.
Mr. Ebanks estimated the Verti-Gro houses use about a third of the water and a third of the land he would otherwise need.
Verti-Gro president Tim Carpenter explained that traditional greenhouses cost too much to operate in a hot, humid place like the Cayman Islands. By allowing tropical growers to control space and inputs, he has found a major market for vertical farming in the Caribbean.
“It works very well in cold climates but extremely well in hot climates,” Mr. Carpenter said.
“We have close to 100 systems in the islands, all the way from Grand Cayman to Puerto Rico and all the way down through there, because it can be an outside system or an indoor system.”
He estimated that Mr. Ebanks uses one-tenth of the space he would need for field crops.
An open-air vent system keeps the houses cool without electricity and Styrofoam pots control root temperature, Mr. Carpenter added.
In cases of extreme weather, he is able to fold up the houses within minutes and transfer the rows to a shipping container.
“A shade house like Davy has really protects them from rain, sun and wind. That gives him an added advantage over trying to predict what’s going to happen from the weather,” Mr. Carpenter said.
While Mr. Ebanks doubts Cayman could ever create a fully local food supply, he said local crops can play an important role in the case of disaster.
“You could cover the whole of the Cayman Islands in shade cloth and you wouldn’t be able to grow enough stuff to supply the demand,” he said.
“But going forward, I see it becoming increasingly more important. Where that stands out even stronger is in the case of a natural disaster, during an extended period of time that ships can’t get in the port. You have the local market here to supply the stuff so people don’t starve.”
Mr. Ebanks recently sold the system to another beginning farmer, Cayman Airways pilot Olson Anderson.
Mr. Anderson began vertical growing with a backyard system and started a commercial house in January. After raising cattle with his wife in the U.S., he had dreamed of getting back to agriculture.
“The island is so small and the soil isn’t plentiful like it is in Kansas. It’s good soil. It’s just not a lot of it,” Mr. Anderson said.
“The Verti-Gro system, in a nutshell, gave us an opportunity to grow more in less space.”
Like Mr. Ebanks, he hopes to start selling to supermarkets. He also envisions home delivery of fresh vegetables to individual customers.
Mr. Ebanks sees a strong future for vertical farming in Cayman, bolstered by growing demand for local products.
“The demand is good. The market is here. You can get rid of your stuff,” he said.
“This is the future, without a doubt.”