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Agriculture: Moving on Up

East End farmer Errol Watler takes Lands and Agriculture Minister Juliana O'Connor-Connolly, JP and a touring team through his greenhouse and plant nursery.

Agriculture is fast becoming an industry to be reckoned with in the Cayman Islands. All across the country farmers are increasing their crop yield, beefing up livestock holdings, and using technology to efficiently maximize production.

Against this background, Minister of District Administration, Works, Lands and Agriculture the Hon. Juliana O'Connor-Connolly, JP, said that her ministry intends to lease crown land in East End for farming purposes.

"I am pleased with the growth that I see taking place in this sector. When I compare what I saw on last year's tours to now, it is clear that things are progressing rapidly," she said.

Mrs. O'Connor-Connolly noted that the agriculture industry is important and that government's goal is to set the sector on a path towards self-sufficiency. "This will enable us to reduce food imports and costs, while generating income for farmers and the wider economy.

"We aim to advance the sector to a point where even after a natural disaster like Ivan, we can still have at least seven days' supply of food on-island to meet the population's needs," she said. "And with that in mind, I am also keen to see the widespread use of backyard farming contributing to Cayman's food security."

The minister emphasised that there is certainly hope for the industry. She pointed to the emerging group of young farmers who, she said, are holding their own among the veterans. She further identified business entrepreneurs who are also engaging in farming.

And underscoring the new breed of farmers, she singled out young goat farmer Nicholas Ebanks as an example. In just one year, she said, he had expanded his livestock holdings from a few animals to several hundred.

The use of new technologies and farming techniques is also evident. Mrs. O'Connor-Connolly explained that farmers had made great strides in animal and crop care, using advanced techniques, including reverse osmosis (to convert salt water to fresh), drip irrigation, greenhouse technology, and other modern techniques.

"I saw cutting edge systems when I visited Kent Rankin's farm; he is currently constructing a bio-digester which will help convert pig-waste to energy for use on the farm.

"Gone are the days when farmers regarded their work as a hobby. It is now a full- fledged business that is significantly impacting the country," she said.

She attributed the growth to the farmers' own initiative and their passion for what they do, coupled with the assistance given by the ministry through the Department of Agriculture (DoA). That help includes technical support, aid in crop production and animal care, and clearance and preparation of land for cultivation. The DoA has also sent farmers overseas for training.

Departmental Director Adrian Estwick agreed that activity in the Islands' agriculture sector has intensified, with the visible evidence comprising increased production, greater investment by farmers and extra demands on his department's services.

As a result of the sector's expansion, the DoA is planning to establish an Agriculture Sector Market Information System to compile data on agricultural production. This will enable the country to collect more accurate performance data.

Mr. Estwick explained that the information system will also be a key step in helping the DoA to see where the main needs in marketing agriculture products lie and how both the department and the ministry should deploy resources.

He added that farmers now have more outlets for their produce, with the Lower Valley's Market at the Grounds concept now being adopted in other parts of the island.

Cayman Islands Agriculture Society President Errol Watler who owns Sparkies Farm said that today, there is a growing understanding among farmers of the importance of modernisation.

"Farmers who are doing well are those who have embraced technology and new ways of doing things. The strugglers are the ones who continue to do things the old fashioned way," Mr. Watler said.

Goat farmer Nicholas Ebanks said that his goal is to see the agriculture sector be on par with tourism relative to national importance and the level of investment. He noted that he aims to have his own farm continue to experience increased levels of growth, expanding into crop cultivation and the area of overseas investment.

In the last few weeks, Minister O'Connor-Connolly has visited 11 farms across Grand Cayman, meeting farmers and being updated on developments in agriculture. She was accompanied by DoA Director Adrian Estwick; Ministry Chief Officer Kearney Gomez; Deputy Chief Officer Leyda Nicholson-Makasure, other ministry officials and DoA staff.

Farms visited in East End included Sparkies Farm and those owned by Philip Bodden, Alida Scott and Irvin Forbes. In West Bay, the team stopped at farms owned by Collie and Carlon Powery, Junior Smith and Steve Jackson.

On the Bodden Town tour agenda were the Hamlin Stephenson, Paul Bodden and Justin Wood farms, while in Spotts Newlands the team stopped by Nicholas Ebanks' and Melbourne Watler's farms.

(GIS)

For further information contact: Prudence Barnes