Although most people probably don’t realise it, Joel Walton’s passion is on display at Camana Bay Farmers & Artisans Market every Wednesday. Breadfruit, papaya, scallions, callaloo, garlic chives, Thai eggplant and tomatoes are just a sample of the produce that Walton grows at his home, Plantation Organic Gardens, in Lower Valley and brings to market weekly.
Something else most people don’t realise is that farming is only a hobby, albeit an extremely serious one, for Walton. His full-time job deals with the sea, not the land; since 2004, he has been CEO of the Maritime Authority of the Cayman Islands.
Yet despite the long hours in the office, plus the weeks of travel needed to ensure the shipping registry remains one of the most respected and successful ones in the world, Walton always takes the time needed to nurture his true passion for farming.
A LIFELONG INTEREST
“I’ve always had an interest in growing things; I had my first garden at age four,” says Walton, who is originally from Cayman Brac, but moved to Grand Cayman when he was nine. Even when his family lived in the middle of George Town and moved house to house every few years, his father ensured he had soil, seeds and a small, box garden in which to grow plants.
As a young man, Walton went away to university in Canada to pursue a career in finance. Even after entering a very successful career that saw him become the Cayman Islands deputy financial secretary for 11 years before he stepped into his current role at the Maritime Authority in 2004, he never lost his desire to grow his own foods.
Walton’s career has taken him to many countries around the world and he was able to see how different cultures relate to food. As a result, his passion for growing food took on a greater purpose.
“In this part of the world — the Caribbean, U.S. and to a lesser extent Canada — food is a function; in a place like Europe, food is an event,” he says. “We’ve lost the whole idea of sitting around the table with family. Ultimately what I was trying to get at was impacting the restaurant and food culture in Cayman and simultaneously introducing farm-to-table dining.”
Originally, Walton’s property was basically an orchard. After Hurricane Ivan destroyed many of the fruit trees he had planted, Walton started growing vegetables and herbs, interspersed among the surviving fruit trees.
After establishing his vegetable garden, Walton first sold his produce, young fruit trees and prepared coffee at the farmers market in Lower Valley.
“Historically the Market at the Grounds was hard core,” he says. “Caribbean people, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders — these people understood where we were going as they had been exposed to market cultures.”
Walton also began to liaise with restaurants and local chefs in Grand Cayman. The Brasserie Restaurant was one of the first to embrace the new approach to cuisine using local ingredients. Around that same time, Grand Cayman’s Slow Food organisation started promoting the philosophy of farm-to-table dining and several local chefs — including those at restaurants like Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Agua, Icoa, Cracked Conch and Ortanique — started to seek out local produce.
“It was a fertile time of young chefs with a different vision.”
I’ve always had an interest in growing things; I had my first garden at age four. Joel Walton
Busy as he was — and still is — with his day job at the Maritime Authority, Walton needed help with his farm. Saturday mornings at the Market at the Grounds, Dr. Joe Jackman and the late Kirkland Nixon both shared their farming expertise with Walton, helping him make better choices in his growing efforts.
He also needed help selling his produce and after some trial with others, Joy Campbell, who was once his children’s nanny, started helping out on the farm and managing the sales. In addition to selling at Camana Bay every Wednesday, Campbell sells for Walton on Saturdays at the Hamlin Stephenson Market at the Cricket Grounds and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from the porch of the house next to MacDonald’s Restaurant in George Town.
Walton says a big part of the reason he has been able to juggle his career with farming is that he lives on the property where he grows his fruits, vegetables and herbs.
His yard also serves as a venue for various farm-to-table events, including an annual harvest dinner for the Slow Food group since 2010. Each of those events has started with a tour of his garden during which Walton shares his impressive knowledge of the plant life growing on the property.
Walton’s approach to farming is one that is in harmony with nature. Avoiding the use of traditional pesticides, Walton prefers to work with nature instead of against it. He believes that the fact that the Cayman Islands is located 20 degrees north of the equator makes the soil and climate unique and therefore requires a different way of farming, or as he puts it, “thinking upside down” in relation to gardening in northern climates.
Walton’s dream of a revised food culture in the Cayman Islands has come to life over the past 10 years. Farm-to-table dining is well established now and the demand for fresh, local produce is high, not only at the farmers markets, but also at the supermarkets.
“It’s fantastic to see what it’s become.”