In our first article on agriculture we examined how the industry had always been an integral part of life in the Cayman Islands, from the first settlers through to the 20th Century. This second part will trace how agriculture began to become a focus for the Government in the mid to late part of the 20th Century.
While industry leaders recognised the importance of being at least partly self-sufficient when it came to growing and rearing food, it was something of an uphill battle with tourism and the financial services industry taking centre stage within Cayman’s economy from the 1960s.
In 1976 Dr Joseph Jackman became the Chief Agricultural and Veterinary Officer for the Cayman Islands, a post he held until 1982. In an oral history interview with the Cayman Islands National Archives, Dr Jackman recalled that Cayman’s farming community wasn’t very well organised when he came to the island from Montserrat.
“The only real organised farm we had was John Bothwell, who had an egg farm in West Bay. I mean, really nicely set up and so on,” he said.
He described the Department of Agriculture’s “little plot” of land by the airport where it would propagate plants and sell plants such as grafted mango trees and avocados, and explained how the Department of Agriculture forged relationships with Floridian growers.
“…we went up to Florida., went down to Homestead, got friendly with some of the growers and so on down there and they would tell me about the new varieties coming in and I would say, “Okay, we’ll try and get them in Cayman”. We brought them down and several varieties did and several varieties didn’t do so well…everybody wanted to have a tree or two, and then we started the programme, and that’s how we got the Department actually doing and going out to help people.”
Dr Jackman detailed how the Department expanded its services to include crop spraying and going aboard all boats to perform checks, working alongside the Mosquito Research and Control Unit. His duties also included visiting local farms to undertake regular examinations of animals and plants to prevent the spread of any disease. In his first year at the Department of Agriculture he also began writing for the Nor’wester magazine to help spread the word about the value of agriculture among the local community with information and recipes to try at home [see a recipe for mango chutney from the Nor’wester in our third and final article].
In 1978 Austin Bothwell was the president of the Cayman Islands Agricultural Society and in the programme for the Agriculture Show of that year he urged the promotion of agriculture and showed interesting foresight when he wrote:
“One only has to read good books and listen to the news over the radio to realise what a mess this world of ours is in as far as food is concerned. For thousands are dying daily. This is one reason why we must plant more food crops so that we can make our country more self-sufficient in food production.”
Ten years later, Dr Alfred Benjamin took over the role as Cayman’s Chief Agricultural and Veterinary Officer, a post he held until December 2007 when he retired.
In an oral history interview with the Cayman Islands National Archives, Dr Benjamin explained how he began to modernise Cayman’s agricultural industry. He began by forging relationships with agriculture experts in Jamaica and Florida when they would come down to attend Cayman’s annual agriculture shows.
“…out of those discussion, I was able to put together a team to come and do the agriculture survey… and to collect data and put together programmes for a five year development programme down the road,” he said, adding that this eventual plan allowed Cayman to move from subsistence to a more commercial product.
Dr Benjamin continued: “…we have all been very proud of that and I thank the farmers ought to be congratulated for the cooperation with these efforts.”
Following the survey, Dr Benjamin said the one big issue for him was that farmers refused to fertilise their land, another glimpse into the foresight of Cayman’s farmers who had embraced organic farming long before it became a popular trend.
“…grass fed beef, for example, was the norm here and think about the health of the consumers who are being fed grass-fed beef as opposed to feed that has been laced with antibiotics and hormones and all that sort of thing,” he said. “So while the farmers may have appeared antiquated, in those times, … their raw intelligence put them way ahead of the crowd, and that’s the kind of pride that I developed with the farming community that we had to serve here.”
Farmers did eventually use fertiliser, he said, which was used in conjunction with improved technology, as Dr Benjamin recalled a hydroponic tomato farm -again ahead of its time - run by Otto Watler. Mr Watler, he said, added different nutrients to the water in which his tomatoes grew, such as sodium, potassium and nitrogen.
In the third part in this series, we examine agriculture’s development from the 1990s to the present day.