Some things have not changed much in the five decades that Cayman has been holding its annual Agriculture Show.
Traditionally held on Ash Wednesday, this year’s show opens at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, marking the 52nd year for the event.
While the farming expo has grown to become the largest single-day, self-generated event on Grand Cayman, drawing up to 10,000 people to the fairgrounds in Lower Valley to see the best the farming community has to offer, the issues those farmers face today have in some ways remained constant over the years.
In 1967, the first year in which coverage of the fair appeared in the Caymanian Weekly newspaper, C.D. Hutchings, who had just been appointed senior agriculture officer for the islands, said more needed to be done to make Cayman less reliant on imports.
“The problem of increased production of food is one of the biggest that politicians and statesmen have to deal with today,” Mr. Hutchings said at the time.
In a recent interview, George Smith, president of the Cayman Agricultural Society – the agency that puts on the show – said it’s important to promote and support local food production.
“We need to rely on it more,” Mr. Smith said, noting that the majority of produce and meat is shipped into the islands. “What happens if America goes to war with Venezuela and they decide no more ships are coming through?
“I’m sure we can do a lot more than we are doing currently,” he said, noting the success of local egg farmers who now produce bumper crops. “It’s not even a drop in the bucket.”
In 1988, then-Governor Alan Scott said farming production had declined, in part, because land was being ceded to a booming commercial industry.
“In recent years,” the story said, “the economic growth and prosperity [have] made farming less attractive.”
Mr. Smith said the same concern exists today.
“We have lost 300 or something acres from agriculture to residential development,” he said. “If that trend continues, what’s going to happen?”
Because of those issues, he said the Agriculture Show remains important as a way to highlight the existing agriculture on the island and, hopefully, encourage people to support it.
“Because we live on an island, we need to become more conscious of our limited resources,” he said. “We’re trying to get everyone to do their part.”
The heart of the agriculture show has not changed much either. It’s still packed with livestock exhibits, stands full of tomatoes, cassava, peppers and more, handicrafts, baked goods and food stalls selling local conch and turtle recipes.
What has changed is the location.
The first few years, starting in 1963, the event was held on land behind the George Town Library. After several years, it moved to a spot on Smith Road. And it spent time at the Lions Centre before eventually ending up on a dedicated piece of land in Lower Valley.
It quickly attracted attention. In its fifth year, the first for which figures are available, the show drew 2,500 people. Two years later, attendance climbed to 3,300. And in 1979, 8,000 people gathered for the show, nearly as many as pour into the grounds these days.
But the following year, the show nearly died, hindered by “money, rain, pests and poor soil.” Farming community veterans said it was only through the efforts of the young people on the steering committee of the Cayman Islands Agriculture Fair that the event went forward. That year, 5,000 joined in the celebration.
Attendance has fluctuated over the years, and following Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 the show went dormant for four years – thus explaining this year’s 52nd installment of an annual event that began 56 years ago. It came back strong in 1993, with 6,000 coming to the Lions Centre for the show.
One thing that fell by the wayside over the years was the parade that went with the show. Some of the early floats were about as creative and basic as one might expect from a small community. Early photos show such things as a flatbed truck with a palm frond stapled across its front bumper. A float for mosquito control had a cartoon cutout of a mozzie in a hat, standing in what appeared to be loads of backyard debris tossed onto the back of a truck. A float for the Cayman National Bank showed children dressed in white cone-shaped hats and coats scrawled with dollar and pound signs as a representation of bank digitization.
Early entertainment was highlighted by local bands and such things as a young man riding a two-story bicycle – clearly a homemade contraption that would not have passed insurance muster.
Farmer Gary Rankin said it’s important for Cayman to continue the tradition.
“It lets the community know for one week the farmers are still here,” he said. “Hopefully, with the Agriculture Show, they will support the farmers.”
It also offers the farmers a chance to shine, he said.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction, just showing the public what’s available,” Mr. Rankin said. “I give credit to all the farmers.”
From a business standpoint, it’s effective.
“We do see a jump in business directly after the Agriculture Show,” he said, crediting the rise to more people being aware of what’s available in local produce.
He also thinks it generates more interest in farming itself, adding that he is seeing an increase in younger people getting involved in the business.
In a Facebook posting, Premier Alden McLaughlin recently promoted the show. A photo shows Mr. McLaughlin standing underneath a palm tree, holding large bunches of bananas and surrounded by produce such as peppers and melons.
“It’s one of my favourite times of the year, and I’m counting down to Grand Cayman’s 52nd Agriculture show,” the premier wrote. “It’s the best place to see people you haven’t seen since last year! Buy some plants, get some good local food and buy locally made crafts.”
For Zelmalee Ebanks, whose family runs a North Side farm, the Agriculture Show remains an important part of Cayman culture. But she feels as though it has lost some of its luster.
“Years ago,” she said, “it was the event of the year. Now, there are so many events. We just had Coco Fest and they had that KAABOO. It has lost its spotlight on the calendar.”
The flavor of the show has changed as well, she said.
“I think it has lost some of its uniqueness by becoming so commercialized,” Ms. Ebanks said.
She recalls the days when the show featured such things as a maypole, a quadrille and fishing scenes made especially for the event. The show seemed to have a greater sense of “exuberance” in the past, she said.
But she still enjoys it.
“My favorite part of the show is looking at the exhibits and seeing what is being produced,” she said, referring to new varieties that have been introduced to the island. “There’s always some unique craftwork too.”
She had to laugh.
“I guess I’m a victim of the commercial aspect,” she said. “I also look forward to making good sales.”