Anthony Cohen sits atop a $300,000 piece of heavy machinery in a field down a dusty lane in North Side. He switches on the tractor engine and slowly lowers a boxy, yellow piece of equipment with toothed, metal rotary blades onto the rocky ground. And then the grinding starts.
In a few short minutes, he has transformed an area of solid rock and hard-packed earth into soil fine enough to drizzle through one’s fingers, as Cohen, Beacon Farms’ machinery supervisor, demonstrates.
This equipment is among the state-of-the-art innovations at work at Beacon Farms, where the staff consists mostly of recovering drug and alcohol addicts being given a second chance at employment and life. On the farm, off Frank Sound Road, the workers grow tobacco, beets, coconuts, and other fruit and vegetables.
There is also a modern composting facility where tons of green waste, dropped off by landscapers and gardeners, old cardboard boxes and wooden pallets delivered by Foster’s Countryside and Progressive, and other organic waste, is turned into fertiliser, in a super-heated process, for the various crops.
And there is a processing plant where modern equipment is used to convert coconuts into pure coconut oil and flour.
Inside the farm’s office building, sophisticated software, used in combination with aerial images of the land and detailed information on individual plots, for example, can pinpoint an exact tree and make a determination of the breakdown of the type of soil underneath it, when it was planted, its expected yield and when it should be harvested.
But it’s not all high-tech equipment and cutting-edge technology. Ultimately, it’s a working farm, with crops and farmhands. For example, standing near a quarter-acre field of tobacco is a thatch-covered, A-frame, wooden shed, that would not have looked out of place centuries ago. This is the tobacco-drying building, where harvested tobacco leaves are draped over the rafters and other wooden slats, with burners placed on the floors to help reduce humidity.
Granger Haugh, founder of the Beacon of Hope Foundation and its offshoot Beacon Farms, says the farm almost exclusively employs recovering addicts, several of whom live on site at a house that the workers themselves renovated. The staff come to Beacon Farms after spending months in recovery at the Bridge Foundation’s half-way house. Bud Volinsky, co-founder of both Beacon Farms and the Bridge Foundation, also lives on the farm.
“We thought if we could furnish a housing area plus create a work environment, it would provide a second step from the Bridge Foundation… and help in the process of bringing people back into the normal world,” Haugh says. “The only rule we have is there is no alcohol or drugs on the premises.”
Workers at the 34-acre farm, who receive a salary, pension and health insurance, undergo spot checks for alcohol and drugs. Those who lapse are asked to leave and will only be allowed to return if they have gone back into the recovery programme and spent more time at the half-way house.
Retired executive Haugh was the founder of US-based Cliniqa Corporation, which designed and manufactured liquid stable controls and calibrators used worldwide in the medical diagnostic industry. Upon the sale of the family company, he created the Haugh Family Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting US veterans, creating inclusive learning opportunities for special needs children, and social entrepreneurship opportunities for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol.
Haugh and his foundation bought the property, which used to belong to the family of the late Speaker of the House Edna Moyle, in spring 2017. The first crop they decided to begin processing was coconuts, but that hit a snag.
“When we decided to get into the coconut business back in 2018, there were lots and lots of brown coconuts available. By the time we got the equipment in and started to go through the processing… there was a real dearth of coconuts on the island. When we can find coconuts, we process coconut oil and coconut flour. We can do other food processing also, as we select ones that are appropriate for our needs. We have over 40 fruit trees, lots of mangoes. We’re all set up to do those kinds of things in the food-processing area,” Haugh told the Compass during a tour of the farm earlier this month.
The farm continues to try to source coconuts from the local community and is inviting anyone growing coconuts to contact them.
The next brainchild for the farm was cigar tobacco, which Haugh says he believes has never been grown commercially in Cayman, though it has proven to be a successful industry for our nearest neighbour, Cuba. Currently, Cayman Cigar Company, an offshoot of Beacon Farms, is making and selling premium, hand-rolled cigars, but is using imported tobacco.
The company earlier this month started selling its cigars in the US.
The aim is eventually to create home-grown tobacco that can be used for ultra-premium cigars.
The quarter-acre test field currently contains the third crop of organic tobacco grown at the farm. The workers on the farm are still tweaking the plant, experimenting with soil, fertiliser, pest control, irrigation and all the other elements that go into creating a premium tobacco product.
Robert Ramoon, who is in charge of the tobacco crop, explains that the plant currently being grown is Connecticut broad-leaf which would be used for the ‘wrapper’, or exterior tobacco leaf of the cigar, and therefore needs to be perfect. “You can’t have any holes in the leaf whatsoever. … You’ve got the filler, the binder and the wrapper. These are the wrapper,” he says, as he rubs one of the large leaves on a stalk between his fingers.
He’s proud of the work done on the tobacco crop – the farm’s third since the project began.
“This is a great achievement,” he says. “We did a lot of research; we messed up here and there, but we’re getting better all the time.”
A few yards from the field is a large greenhouse, where the starter tobacco plants are grown in little pots before being transferred to the field.
“We’re waiting to have an appropriate leaf from the farm here in order to introduce a 100% Cayman-grown cigar. It could be 2022 or 2023 before we reach that goal,” Haugh says.
Another crop that seems unlikely to have previously been grown in Cayman that Beacon Farms is working with is the mangel beet – an animal fodder that Haugh believes can be widely grown and a good source of revenue for all local farmers. “It grows vertically rather than horizontally, so you can get a lot of crop per acre,” he said. The grinder machine used at the farm, which can break down rock and earth to a depth of 18 inches, makes the viability of the beet crop even stronger.
“That’s our next project,” Haugh says. “It brings us all back to the soil. That’s the basic thing on an agricultural farm, you need good soil. In some places we have good soil, in others we don’t, so the rockiness up here really led us to consider if the amount of green waste we were harvesting as we cleared the area for farming could be converted into something for us to put back into the field again, and that took us to the condition of composting on the island. Tons of green waste is going into the landfill. We wanted to see if we could convert that into something usable.”
This led to a trip to composting sites in North Carolina that gave them a few ideas, and in July last year, they brought in equipment they could use for an aerated static pile process, where green waste, manure, shredded paper, wooden pallets, food waste, or any kind of waste containing carbon and nitrogen, was ground and mixed, then aerated and moistened, before being heated to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. “In 20 days, we have a pile of compost,” Haugh says. Right now, that compost is only being used at Beacon Farms, but eventually Haugh hopes that the farm can supply other farmers with the fertilising material.
The operators and staff at Beacon Farms believe that the methods being used there can be adopted for other farms, and can make the Cayman Islands much more sustainable from a food supply point of view, a concern that the current COVID crisis has highlighted worldwide.
Using more modern machinery and techniques would mean that farming could be done with fewer people and be much less labour intensive. “The ultimate goal is for us to have an area of a couple of acres so we can show people that in today’s agriculture, it does not take a guy out in a field in the hot sun with a shovel and hoe to produce something… we have a tractor pulling a device which will make the rows, lay an irrigation pipe on a row, cover the row in plastic and plant through it, all in one pass,” Haugh says.
The farm has a five-year plan that includes making the site a tourist attraction and an educational field-trip destination. Eventually, Haugh hopes Beacon Farms will grow cacao to make unique Cayman chocolate, and that the site will also include a honey farm, hydroponics, a laboratory, a petting zoo, and trails and observation points for visitors.