Who grows your bananas?

The weekend of the 5th & 6th of November was busy and full of food. On Saturday, I went to the Brisbane Good Food and Wine Show (pics to come later). Then on the Sunday, I joined up with a  Food Connect farm tour down in northern New South Wales. I have mentioned Food Connect before. It is the community supported agriculture program that I subscribe to. Every week I pick up a box of fruit and vegetables from a local ‘city cousin.’ I love it. The produce comes from within a short radius of Brisbane. For me this takes out the work out of trying to find local options at the markets. All of the produce is chemical spray free and a good portion comes from organic and biodynamic growers.

Food Connect runs farm tours for its subscribers every season. I joined up with the tour group at Garry Fetherson’s banana farm, not far from Crystal Castle, up in the hills, overlooking Mullumbimby.

Garry is in the process of converting his property from a conventional farm to a biodynamic farm.  He is two and a half years in to what he believes will be a 10 year plus project. Years of spraying, neglect and mismanagement of the property means Garry has his work cut out for him.

Garry Fetherston explaining his latest project

We stood at the entrance to the farm overlooking a large area where Garry ripped out existing banana trees and bulldozed the site. To me the patch looked like an ordinary bit of  dirt but to Garry this was the dawn of a new era for the farm.

Bananas are well suited to growing on the side of hills.  They are usually planted on north east facing slopes, to take full advantage of the winter sun and avoid the valley frost.

Growing on slopes has serious drawbacks. Rainfall and water run off can cause errosion issues and access to the plants is difficult.  To combat some of these problems, Garry has had to think outside the box and is going to apply a technique known as benching.  This involves excavating flat terraces sloping slightly into the hillside with a small contour, which is different to the normal approach of growing the plants straight up the hill.

This is the project site. The plants will be on the slopes and the flat terrace will be used for easy access to the plants.

The recently planted pigeon pea and lab lab legumes have started to sprout. These are vital to soil stability.

The  farm currently has 7 hectares under production. One thing that is really apparent to me when looking at farm operations, is how closely farmers have to work with nature. You time and plan out the season, but at the end of the day, it is always natures timing that is law.

Harvesting is done selectively. Not all fruit will be ready to pick at the same time. Garry scouts the farm each day to locate patches that are ripe for picking.

The farm currently only grows lady finger bananas. This variety of bananas produce half the yield of cavendish and require twice the work. I guess this explains why there is such a significant price difference between the two.

Garry shared with us the problems he is facing with the spread of a disease called Panama. Parts of the farm have already been ruined by Panama disease. This is a fungal disease that can wipe out entire plantations. Measures can be put in place to slow the rate of infection but shoes, machinery, irrigation, water run off, and wind all contribute to its spread. The disease is dispersed via spores in infected soil and can remain for years. Once an area is infected it is unlikely to produce a crop again.

In this picture you can see many of the banana plants have already died or are in the process of wilting. This is an area of the property badly damaged by Panama disease.

The first symptom is yellowing of the leaves, starting from the older leaves and progressing to the younger leaves. The leaves then wilt and hang down like a skirt around the plant stem before dying.  Panama disease is a constant battle and Garry is planning to plant Cavendish on his new plot as these are resistant to the disease. Apparently Panama disease threatens to wipe out Lady Finger varieties in Australia. That’s a bit surreal!

Garry remains positive about the future of his farm. He has a goal to increase the soil life and biodiversity and move to a system that uses  natural nutrient cycling and ground covers. Our ecosystems are fragile and conventional farming is destructive. Restoring damaged farm land is a mammoth undertaking.  I am glad Garry is so passionate about creating a banana farm that will last into the future.

I love bananas. They are a little meal in themselves. Farming them looks like hard work. Farmers amaze me with their dedication and perseverance. It is definitely not my calling.  Thanks Food Connect for organising the tour. Being a city dweller it is lovely to be connected with the farmers that provide me with produce every week. Putting a name, a face, a bit of land and a lot of hard work to the bananas I munch on, keeps the whole process real. You can see the value in the prices you pay for fresh produce.

Being a part of this tour has highlighted to me the importance of supporting sustainable farming. It is worth the extra cost because the real cost of supporting conventional farming is likely to come much later and once it is too late.

View up to the farm from the valley

Thanks Garry for showing us around your farm.

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10 thoughts on “Who grows your bananas?

  1. Barbara says:

    Gosh that is tragic about the Panama disease. I hope they manage to control it. A friend recently brought meup some Coff’s Harbour bananas from a roas side stall. They were delicious and reminded me of the taste of bananas from my childhood.

    Lovely to discover your blog. I live in Brisbane but grew up in Margaret River.

    • Isabella says:

      Thanks Barbara. South west WA is a great place to grow up! Lucky us :). Margaret River would have been quite different before the tourist boom, I imagine. I am sure it has changed so much now. Still the ocean is so beautiful.

  2. WilliamHartwick says:

    I know from first hand experience that Garry is both an awesome guy and is extremely passionate about his farm work. WWOOFing for him was one of the highlights of my time in OZ. I’m glad that people are taking notice of the work he puts in to his farm.

  3. Garry says:

    I was wondering if anyone was listening. Great report Isabella. You’re a very good note taker. If’s more accurate than anything I’ve written about it myself. Well done. Garry

  4. Allison Marsh says:

    Thank you for this write up! I work at FC and didn’t get to make it to the farm tour so it’s great to hear such a detailed report of Gary’s banana farm. You seem to have enjoyed it and listened well 🙂
    Cheers!

  5. Emma-Kate says:

    This is such a beautiful post, Isabella. I’d love to share it with Garry, if you haven’t already of course! Thanks for your support and for being a top ethical eater. We need more of you in the world 🙂

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