On a tip from Grand Cayman head chef Thomas Tennant, we hopped in the rental car one recent Saturday morning for a drive to Savannah, a town on the island’s southern end where a morning farmers market is held weekly at “The Grounds.”
It was nearly Noon when we arrived, hours past the 7:00 a.m. peak of supply and variety, and mere minutes before closing. Luckily we weren’t there to pick up for the restaurant. Instead, our mission was to learn a little more about the emerging local farming community and what’s in season.
We were pleasantly surprised to find many vendors still present and accounted for in the open-air warehouse, behind flag-draped booths of homemade sweet cakes and pepper pickles, fresh mangoes of all shapes and sizes, bumpy sweet potatoes like over-sized chess pieces, and the most adorable eggplant you’ve ever seen. Thai eggplant.
The man behind this pile of miniature striped green pouches is Patrick M. Panton, owner of East End Garden & Gifts and one of the local growers chef Thomas has uncovered, supplying our Grand Cayman restaurant with fabulous produce. Here is Patrick’s story, a taste of his quite innovative island operation, and a peek into how we might help further stimulate this growing community.
I was born in Venice FL, Sarasota County, south of Tampa/St. Pete 1960. My Mom spent her senior year of high school here at Triple C School when she met my Dad who is Caymanian. They’ve been married 50+ years now. We vacationed here every summer while I was growing up. I moved here in July of 1995. Here’s a warning – once you live here you no longer vacation here. We sold mine and my partner of 20 years’ home and business in Florida and became entrenched in the Garden Center Scene in Cayman working for Vigoro Nursery, Brent Greene’s Nursery and then EBT before opening East End Garden & Gifts, Ltd. officially in March 2001 on a rented parcel with an old Caymanian home which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in September ’04.
Take a deep breath. Can you say run on sentence?
Our farm/nursery is now located inland Bodden Town. If you are sitting on the patio at Micheal’s over looking the Crescent, our location is in the direction of the rising sun. Approximately a 30 minute non rush hour drive. I started test cropping in November 2008 with Tomato, Papaya and Callaloo with great success. Our location is a bit off the beaten path and with 10.5 acres sitting there and the uncertainty of the economic future it was time to diversify. Not everybody needs to buy a plant every day but everybody does eat every day. Economic survival being the impetus for our tuning to farming. That and I love it.
I find farming very rewarding. Growing produce has recharged me. The new challenges replaced the growing case of “burnout” I was struggling with. I joined Market at the Grounds weekly Saturday Market in March 2009 as a live Plant Vendor only. The first week was great – I was very pleased but week after week Plant sales continued to fall. Plant lovers want one of everything and if you’re not offering new varieties your regular customers become irregular real fast. I studied the crowds and SURPRISE the busiest vendors were the produce vendors. That was when we introduced our first produce offerings of Tomato, Papaya and Calloloo and sold out every week.
Azon Sabile is our ”Farm Director”. She is Filipino and had previously spent 12 years at an organic farm in Bermuda before being ”rolled over”. We corresponded by email and she arrived on Grand Cayman in December 2008. She was doing a great job learning plants and being a nursery yard-person but more and more we talked about growing produce. With her Asian influence we developed our crop list with the emphasis on Asian and Indian produce that included Bottle Gourd, Sponge Gourd, Chinese Watercress, Wing Bean, String Bean, Red Callaloo, Bok Choy, Hon Tsai Tai, Ko Tsai Tai, Yu Choy Sum, Indian Summer Chard, Bitter Melon, White Radish, Mustard Medley, Chili Pepper Medly, Local Pumpkin and our fresh Herbs (Flat and Curley Parsley, Dill, Chives, Garlic Chives, Cilantro, Sage, Oregano, Thai and Sweet Basil) which were a huge hit – SURPRISE. All the other produce vendors were growing traditional crops and they had their loyal customers.
Our goal was to create a new customer base thus expanding The Market at the Grounds customer base and attendance. I learned the way to lure another produce vendor’s loyal customer was to offer something different – peak their interest. Make them turn their heads and walk over to our display and encourage them to try something new – continually reminding them that variety is the spice of life. We started with one 8 foot table to introduce our produce and have expanded to 3 – very crowded and piled high 8 foot tables to display our no chemicals, organically fertilized green garden goodness.
Our 2 most asked questions were and still are ”What is this?” and “Do you have anything for Lettuce” so we quickly added noncooking greens including Mizuna, Baby Romaine and Arugula which the Governor’s wife and personal chef both agree is better than any available in Italy -Arugula that is. In fact another well known Market at the Grounds Produce Vendor, Joel Walton, has dubbed it Scotch Bonnet Rocket. It’s nutty then firey – they love it.
Our most recent release is our Baby Greens which variably includes leaves of Bulls Blood Baby Beets, Baby Arugula, Baby Mizuna, Tatsoi, Baby Beka Santoh, Baby Maruba Santoh, Green Lance, Baby Romain, Baby Spinach, Baby Ghai lan, Kentsai and is a smashing success. Anybody who tries it comes back for it every time. In fact, Thomas at MGFD was presented with a sample last week, and we’re increasing our production with MGFD in mind. Fingers crossed.
Our customer base is as varied as the population of Grand Cayman. Our repertoire includes favorites from Europe, Asia, India, America and the Caribbean. It’s very cool to watch a new customer from a far away land walk up to our display and recongnise produce from their homeland. They are drawn in completely off guard; reach for and hold produce they have been longing for. Big smiles everytime.
We are currently growing Herbs including Sweet Basil and Oregano. Raw greens including our Baby Greens Mix, Mizuna, Spicy Curley and Spicey Purple Mustard, and Arugula/Rocket. Peppers including, Bell, Anaheim, Holy Mole’ and Cheyene Chili, Scotch Bonnett and Season Pepper. Eggplants including Black Beauty, Thai Tiger, Chinese Long Purple, and an Indian/Asian medley consisting of 7 various sizes,shapes and colors. Green and Red Okra. Asian Cooking Greens including Chinese Watercress, Ko tsai ti, Ghai lan, Yu choy sum, Bok Choy and Saluyot. Other Cooking Greens including Calloloo, Indian Red Callaloo, Rainbow Chard, 4 Mustard Medley, Kale and Collards. Vegetables including Cucumber, White Squash/Bottle Gourd, Sponge Gourd, Bittermelon, Wing Bean, Cluster Bean, String Bean, Long White Radish, Red Kuri and Blue Ballet Squash/Pumpkin and Fennel. Fruits including Red Papaya and Apple Banana.
We concentrate on quick crops so we do harvest daily to keep our leaves and beans tender and our okra and eggplant with little seed development. We currently have 23 staffers of which only 2 are devoted to the garden full time with me getting in the way as often as I can. Myself, Azon and Ricky Ebanks(training) handle the Market and Stand sales. We’ve just purchased our first tractor to prepare 3 more acres for the upcoming winter season. I’ve never owned a new car in my life but I’ve got a brand new Tractor and trailer – priorities. We’ll also be creating a couple of Trench wells this summer to aid in the added watering needs.
We’ve teamed up with another Farm in East End and currently sell at a produce stand between Breakers and Bodden Town on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noonish to 6ish. We do Market at the Grounds in Lower Valley on Saturday mornings which officially opens at 7:00 a.m. but there is a crowd there at 6:00 a.m.. And lastly, we sell at Camana Bay’s Market Street Market on Wednesdays from Noon to 7:00p.m.. We have 5 trucks on the road everyday so deliveries can be made Monday – Friday.
I do enjoy cooking useing fresh ingredients only – SURPRISE. I love presenting an assortment of beautifully broiled vegetables including Green Onions, Zuccini, Yellow Squash, Colored Sweet Peppers and Mushrooms along side a chunky rare Beef, Tuna or Mahi steak and a fresh salad with my salad topper made of Tomato, onion, garlic, parsley, olives, capers, cucumber, Gorganzola, garbanzo beans, black beans, corn, olive oil, dry Italian seasoning, black pepper and Balsamic Vinegar. Yum.
My favorite product is our Heirloom Tomato Medley which unfortunately is out of season now but will be back next year. This past season we grew with varying degrees of success but wide acclaim none the less Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Big Rainbow, Brandy Wine and Black Krim. All were delicious and highly sought after.
My 6 – four legged kids’ Doctor shared with me her experience with our Heirloom Tomatoes. Doctor “B” selected some at the Saturday Market at the Groung and took them home and prepared them sliced with Feta, Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar and tears came to her eyes because they tasted so amazingly good and being from Texas explained she hadn’t had Tomatoes that good in a very long time. She thanked me.