Amid the bleating of newborn kids and the hammering of fence posts, a new industry is taking shape on Cayman Brac.
Perched atop the Bluff on the eastern edge of the Sister Islands, the Cayman Brac goat farm, a fledgling agriculture business that had been stalled in an embryonic phase for several years, is beginning to attract attention.
Part of that is down to the new farm manager, Brian Payne, brought in from Canada to give momentum to a project that was on the verge of being mothballed.
It’s hard not to turn heads when you arrive in the Cayman Islands on a chartered cargo jet filled with 215 goats.
Flying their goat herd to Grand Cayman on a retrofitted Boeing 767 out of Alberta, Canada, was just the first leg of an epic journey for Mr. Payne and his wife Katie.
It was an 11-day wait at the Agricultural Grounds and a ferry crossing before the Paynes and their goats took up residence at their new home on the Bluff farm.
“The ambition is to have the best meat goat operation in the Caribbean,” said Mr. Payne, who was head-hunted for the role by a group of investors who own the land on the Bluff.
“It might be a case of ‘build it and they will come,’” he admitted. But he is confident that the farm can provide food security for the Cayman Islands as well as a sustainable business for the investors.
The key is “scalability,” he said.
Part of that equation was dealt with when he arrived with his own herd, bringing the number of goats at the farm to more than 300.
The next phase was happening before our eyes. It’s kidding season, and Katie Payne served as midwife to two new additions to the herd in the time we were talking. Over the next few months, the herd will swell to around 700, filling the enclosures that are springing up across the farm.
“We left four children and 10 grandchildren to work harder than we’ve ever worked, at the age of 67, to make this farm a success,” Mr. Payne told the Cayman Compass as he tagged and weighed the newborn animals.
The kids’ vital statistics are recorded and their information is sent to a university laboratory as part of the farm’s breeding program.
The process allows the farmer to select the “best” breeding males to ensure a generationally “improving” herd.
At its simplest, it is a kind of agricultural Darwinism that ensures the survival of the fattest. Goats that yield the most meat are selected to pass on their genes to the next generation. And these are sturdy animals, upward of 150 pounds.
“This is a profit center,” he says, feeling the weight of the kid in his arms. “It is like an employee at a company – if an employee is making money, you keep the employee.”
Weighing the litter is one of the ways to test the productivity of the female goats.
Over time, this careful husbandry will ensure a herd of meaty, healthy, “feed efficient” goats that he believes can find a ready market in the restaurants and supermarkets of Grand Cayman and beyond.
Already, he says, restaurants on the Brac are taking more goats than the farm can provide. Five carcasses were shipped out to Abacus in Grand Cayman for a slow-food day earlier this year.
It is this niche that he sees as Bluff Farm’s best bet.
“Goat is one of the most widely consumed red meats in the world, but it has also become kind of a gourmet thing where you get a lot of chefs looking for new recipes and new ideas for restaurants.
“Right now, restaurants are clamoring for our product. I see no shortage of buyers, but it comes down to price point. You need a local market that supports you and buys into the concept of fresh and local.”
Eventually, he believes, the farm can expand to include a dairy that produces goat cheese and develop into a viable agri-tourism business on the Brac.
But he admits he is trampling an untrodden path.
“This is a huge paradigm shift, bringing these goats, seeing if they are adapted, building this system that I think is going to work and work brilliantly – where is the textbook? Oh, that’s right – I’m writing it.”
One of the challenges he is keenly aware of is that every piece of bush and brush is valuable in the Brac’s dry tropical forest environment.
“We have to be very serious about what we are doing because these goats can destroy a lot of bush very quickly. If we let the goats out, it might be cheaper, but it is not sustainable. They would denude the Bluff.
“We need enclosures, we need secure food sources and we need scale to make that viable.”
Another issue, both in Canada and in Cayman, is the waning appetite for farm work among young people.
Mr. Payne hopes, ultimately, to train a team of young Caymanians to work at the farm, but he recognizes this will need to involve a change in viewpoint toward farm work.
“At one time, they had old-style agriculture on the Bluff but it became associated with lower class. People want their kids educated and agriculture was not perceived as worthwhile and has kind of fallen back. “To me, there are tremendous opportunities here when you think about the fragile nature of our food supply. We have to produce something, we have to create employment, and to be sustainable, we have to have young Caymanians.”