Cayman farmers anxious about the future

Davy Ebanks uses a vertical growing system in his greenhouse operation at Cayman Vertigro.

It took a lot of years for Gary Rankin to come around to appreciating Cayman Islands farming.

As a kid, he did not really look forward to the early mornings in the fields.

“We used to go out and pick callaloo and sell it to Buy-Rite before school,” said Mr. Rankin, 47. “We’d go out at 4:30 or 5 and do a quick pick.”

His siblings, helped by some farm hands, would harvest up to 150 pounds before grabbing their books and heading to school.

Mr. Rankin spent his adult life pursuing different work. As general manager of Paramount Group, he’s focused on carpet, tile and other flooring and building materials. But when his father, Kent “Biggie” Rankin, died in 2016, Gary had to make a decision: keep or sell the family farm near Bodden Town.

Not only did Mr. Rankin keep the farm, these days he cannot wait to walk the fields and check in on the livestock.

“The hustle and bustle I’ve left in town,” he said, strolling through some of the 62 acres where drip irrigation lines feed potatoes, eggplant, okra and a host of other vegetables.

“I would like to get better management at Paramount and do this full time.”

Mr. Rankin’s attitude change toward local agriculture is not unique. Over the past decade, those in the business say more local markets have opened to locally grown produce and meat. Nevertheless, many worry that a lack of interest on the part of younger generations may point to a troubling future.

“In the ‘90s and early 2000s, the consumer preference was very much for anything that was imported,” said Brian Crichlow, assistant director for the Department of Agriculture. “That has significantly shifted in the last 10 years.”

Cayman supermarkets are purchasing more local meat and produce. There are even special sections in some stores for the local products. Island restaurants are also buying more from local growers.

Goats are among the livestock Jeff Ebanks and his family raise on their farm on Grand Cayman’s North Side. – Photos: Mark Muckenfuss

“That’s where the farmers are doing well, is in the restaurants,” Mr. Crichlow said.

“Chefs have a much greater appreciation for buying fresher produce.”

George Smith is a cattle farmer and head of the Cayman Islands Agricultural Society. He said retailers are much more open these days to buying from local farmers.

“Before, you couldn’t get the markets to take the local beef,” Mr. Smith said.

“Now they can’t keep it on the shelf.”

Consumers, he said, appreciate the fact that local beef is hormone free and not fed antibiotics – a statement verified by Mr. Crichlow – creating an alternative to much of the commercial beef from the United States.

But despite the changes and the increase in opportunity, farming in Cayman is no easy business. Fertile land is not easy to come by and some is being gobbled up by development. Water is scarce and often too brackish for growing certain plants. Pests, from insects to iguanas, are a constant problem. And, some say, the weather patterns in recent years have shifted, making it harder to rely on traditional crops.

Challenges for farmers

Willie Ebanks, one of the older generation of farmers on Grand Cayman, is known for his more than 70 varieties of mango. He grows other crops as well on the 50-plus acres he cultivates on North Side. And he is one of two major hog farmers on the island. “Every time you turn around, there’s a different insect,” said Mr. Ebanks, adding that parrots and iguanas present a constant battle.

“Everything is an extra expense.”

Those expenses are hard to keep up with.

“Most of the active farmers are going down the drain,” Mr. Ebanks said. “We’ve all seen our best days.”

He also worries that there seems to be little interest among younger people for getting involved in agriculture. His own son, Jeff, 41, has worked the farm all his life and plans to continue. But he’s not sure if any of his children will.

“My youngest son says he wants to farm, but he’s only 7,” Jeff Ebanks said.

He said he would like to see more support from the government for farmers. Currently, he said, he benefits from subsidized feed for livestock that has been at a set price since “the devil was a boy” and reduced prices for pesticides. But he believes more needs to be done, even just in monitoring the industry.

Farmer Gary Rankin says the Department of Agriculture has been helpful in providing advice on how best to operate his greenhouses.

Currently, there is no accounting system for assessing the amount of produce grown in the Cayman Islands.

“In terms of the numbers of what is being produced, they don’t have a clue,” Mr. Ebanks said, adding that his family knows down to the pound and day the number of mangoes and other crops they market.

Mr. Crichlow said the government is currently considering some policies that would address better tracking of produce grown on the island. As far as livestock, he said, good data on livestock populations is available through a twice-a-year survey by the Department of Agriculture, tracking numbers through the government-run abattoir and health department records of private slaughtering. That data shows that, aside from poultry, numbers are down.

In the last 10 years, cattle numbers have dropped 48 percent, from 2,520 in 2008 to 1,300 in 2017. The pig population declined from 932 in 2008 to a low of 649 in 2012, but has rebounded since, reaching 922 in 2017. And goats, after a surge in 2008, dropped from 2,171 to 1,360 in the last decade, a 37-percent decline.

Poultry, on the other hand, has boomed in relative terms, particularly when it comes to laying hens. The number of chicks sold to farmers by the Department of Agriculture has quadrupled in the past 10 years. Field data, which has only been collected since 2012, shows the number of registered poultry farmers grew from 84 that year to 142 in 2017. Laying hens went from 5,306 to 12,514, a 136-percent jump.

The Agricultural Society’s Mr. Smith says it would be helpful if farmers here benefited from the kind of support farmers elsewhere often enjoy.

“In other countries, it’s not just subsidies, there are incentives,” Mr. Smith said. “If [farmers] have a large plot of land and they’re not farming, they don’t get a tax break.”

When there are bumper crops, governments buy the surplus, he said, to keep prices stable and “so the farmer doesn’t stop farming.”

Davy Ebanks uses a vertical growing system in his greenhouse operation at Cayman Vertigro.

Younger farmers needed

Such support will not matter much, however, if the younger generation does not take an interest in keeping agriculture alive in Cayman.

Paramount’s Mr. Rankin said he thinks more needs to be done to sell the idea.

“The children are not being educated about the importance of local farming, and the benefits,” Mr. Rankin said.

“The younger generation is losing focus on some of the things Cayman was built on. You have to know where you’re coming from to know where you’re going.”

But, he is optimistic that the industry will survive.

“It will never die out,” he said. “It won’t disappear. It’s going to get smarter. But there’s only so much you can do because of the size of the population. For the farmers that do remain, I do see growth and expansion.”

Smarter farming is what Davy Ebanks has invested in. Unlike some of the multi-generational farms, he became a grower only recently, establishing Cayman Vertigro in 2012. Mr. Ebanks, 61, grows much of his produce in stacked pots in a greenhouse, using a special potting medium.

“You’re getting 20 plants in the same area as one plant,” he said. The greenhouses are surrounded by a foot-high fence made of metal roofing material, which he says is 99-percent effective in keeping the iguanas out.

“I’ve always liked growing stuff,” said Mr. Ebanks, who managed one of the island’s golf courses for 26 years. “It’s in my blood.”

He markets much of his produce – bell peppers, lettuce, herbs and more – to local restaurants and markets. That market has been profitable, but he worries about larger entities potentially pushing him and other smaller farmers out.

“There seems to be a drastic increase in commercial farming in Cayman in the last year,” he said.

“A lot of foreign entities seem to think it’s an easy thing. I wish them luck. It’s not as easy as people make it out to be.” Still, he said, if large foreign companies begin buying up farmland for commercial production, it would radically change the face of local agriculture.

“That’s the biggest fear of every farmer in Cayman,” he said.

Jeff Ebanks said he worries more about the weather and whether this year’s crop – mangoes had a dismal early season – will pay the bills. As tough as it sometimes is, he does not see an alternative.

“I’m in so deep now, I can’t get out,” he said.

He would like more people to recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy agriculture industry on Cayman, he said. Recognizing that the islands do not have the resources to be self-sustaining, it’s still important, he said, to have locally produced food, particularly in cases when there might be an emergency or a sudden food shortage from foreign sources.

He’d also like people to appreciate what he does.

“It for sure is a very honest living,” he said. “You have to eat. You can go without a pair of shoes for a week. Try not eating for a week.

“Without a farm, my friend,” he added, “there wouldn’t be anything else.”

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  1. Should have been a front page article!

    In 1906, Alfred Henry Lewis stated, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” Everyone should memorize this quote. The Cayman Islands, as a country, is totally food-import dependent. Food import dependency and food security vulnerability can have devastating consequences. Remember the impact of
    September 11 2001 on aviation? All transportation could remain at a standstill for weeks following a major hurricane.

    CIG should not only subsidize local farmers, they should have started agribusiness training centers and entrepreneurial programs decades ago.