(Published in Flava magazine, spring issue, 2015)
As I walk into an expansive greenhouse tucked out of sight off Frank Sound Road, I’m hit with a deliciously mouthwatering bouquet of fresh herbs.
I’m meeting with Bruce Mico, part of the green-fingered team behind CayFresh – one of Cayman’s growing band of local farmers. What started out as a retirement project has developed into a thriving business for Bruce and his wife Virginia, along with business partners Bill and Anne Mervyn.
The CayFresh team supply supermarkets and restaurants with locally grown herbs and lettuces – all grown using state-of-the-art techniques at their one and a half acre site in North Side.
CayFresh uses hydroponics, a farming technique whereby plants are grown in a precisely measured nutrient-rich soilless solution. “Hydro” means water and “Ponics” means working, so, literally translated, hydroponics means “working water.” At CayFresh, water is pumped through channels where the plants grow. According to Bruce, the technique uses about 10 percent of the water that soil-based farming uses – a major plus in a country which can go months with extremely limited rainfall.
“Conventional soil farming is difficult in Cayman,” Bruce says. “The soil is clay like, fresh water is limited, and land is expensive.”
Hydroponics helps CayFresh get around these problems, ensuring a reliable supply of high-quality crops.
“With hydroponic farming, plants typically grow two to three times faster as they receive just the right amount water, which has optimal nutrient concentrations,” Bruce explains. “Because of this the plants don’t invest in growing large root systems, instead focusing energy on growing leaves.”
Bruce adds that since many of the factors which affect plant health and growth are controlled with hydroponic farming, production is much more reliable and also allows the team to grow crops year round.
“For us, this advantage is very important because our customers expect a continuous supply of produce.”
CayFresh officially launched in 2012. After a few false starts, the then novice farmers chose to focus on growing just a couple of herbs, ones which were relatively easy to grow and for which there was a large local demand.
Italian basil and mint were the herbs of choice. Not only are they in large demand, but neither fares well when imported from overseas, meaning there was an opportunity to introduce into the market a superior product.
“Initially, we sold basil at grocery stores as a hydroponic plant with roots in water,” Bruce says. “The live plant provided the customer with maximum flavor and freshness. Shortly after, we started packing cut basil and mint in plastic bags.”
It wasn’t long until CayFresh’s locally grown mint and basil started overtaking the imported herbs. With the support of supermarket produce managers, CayFresh is now the primary supplier of these two herbs to all on-island supermarkets as well as to a large number of restaurants; so much so that many have cancelled U.S. orders, choosing to rely solely on CayFresh. Indeed, if you’ve bought mint or basil recently, chances are it’s from CayFresh.
“Based on this success, grocery store produce managers from all three major stores encouraged us to grow and supply all of the herbs,” Bruce says. “So, by the summer of 2013 we felt as if we had found our niche and focused on expanding our selection of herbs.”
Choosing to expand, however, requires careful planning for the CayFresh team. Not only do they have to ensure reliability and quality, but also how to match production with demand, a process which can take the CayFresh team up to a year to perfect.
“Because our grocery store customer solely rely on us for the supply of herbs, reliability of production is essential,” Bruce explains. “For each product we need to determine how much of each herb to plant, how often to plant, how to harvest and maintain plant health, and when to replant. It is also difficult to predict the demand for a new herb.”
CayFresh currently provides fresh-cut cilantro, Thai basil, lemon basil, opal basil, chives, dill, lemongrass, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme, as well as some more unusual varietals such as chocolate mint. The team has also expanded and now offers a selection of mixed spring greens and heads of lettuce.
The farm’s success mirrors the farm-to-fork trend as consumers become increasingly savvier about what’s on their dinner plate and where it comes from. Buying locally grown produce is not only better for the environment since it offers a greatly reduced carbon footprint, but it also results in a far superior taste.
“Grocery store produce managers are an important part of our success to date,” Bruce comments. “They have been uniformly supportive and provide invaluable advice on what customers want.
“We also appreciate the support of restaurant chefs. It is more work for a chef to buy a few local products compared to buying imported product via a local food distributor. The chefs at Luca, Ragazzi, Casanova, and Cracked Conch have been supportive from the beginning. We are also providing our products to Icoa, The Greenhouse, The Tasting Room, Catch, The Westin, and Tukka, to name just a few.”
He adds: “We plan to complete the supply of fresh cut herbs in grocery stores and expand our lettuce production. We also plan on growing micro-greens too.”
For Bruce and the team at CayFresh the future certainly looks bright. And that can only be a good thing for Cayman’s food scene.