Time for a Kiwi banana in­dus­try?

The Orchardist - - Profile - By Wendy Lau­ren­son

But lo­cally grown ba­nanas are start­ing to ap­pear at mar­kets in North­land and they may be a sign of things to come. With ba­nanas thriv­ing and fruit­ing well in hid­den pock­ets around North­land from Whangarei to Houhora, the level of in­ter­est in both eat­ing them and grow­ing them is on the rise.

Sev­eral op­por­tu­ni­ties are fu­elling this new level of in­ter­est.

Firstly, a few lo­cal grow­ers have been in the game long enough to pro­duce good fruit all year round, giv­ing us the ev­i­dence that ba­nanas can crop here con­sis­tently. Sec­ondly, trop­i­cal banana plan­ta­tions are be­ing hit with some se­ri­ous fun­gal dis­eases re­quir­ing nu­mer­ous sprays, and spray re­sis­tance is now threat­en­ing crop sup­ply. Thirdly, cli­mate change may be en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to be more re­cep­tive to banana grow­ing as a pos­si­bil­ity for North­land, even though cli­mate change seems to be re­veal­ing more ex­tremes of ev­ery­thing – hot­ter, wet­ter, colder, and windier. And fourthly, there is a bur­geon­ing in­ter­est in food grown lo­cally and with a known story.

An­other key fac­tor is that most of the lo­cally grown ba­nanas that do well here are the short sweet Lady’s Fin­ger or Dwarf Cavendish ba­nanas, both of which have a more in­tense flavour and dense tex­ture than the Cavendish we are fa­mil­iar with from the su­per­mar­ket. Once eaten, never for­got­ten and of­ten sought.

The in­creas­ing in­ter­est in lo­cal banana sup­ply has prompted the re­cent for­ma­tion of a group called Trop­i­cal Fruit Grow­ers of New Zealand (TFGNZ) to ex­plore and ex­per­i­ment with trop­i­cal fruit pro­duc­tion in North­land. Ba­nanas are their first fo­cus.

Parua Bay farmer Hugh Rose is chair of TFGNZ. He and his wife Pauline put their first 200 banana plants in the

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ground last Novem­ber after mov­ing to the area from Kaipara three years ago. “I have been to­tally in­spired by my neigh­bour, Owen Schafli”, Hugh ex­plains. “My back­ground is in sheep and beef farm­ing cou­pled with tourism, and in grow­ing mel­ons, ku­mara, but­ter­nuts and pump­kins. I met Owen as a fel­low grower at the Good Food Col­lec­tive in Parua Bay and I was blown away when I went and had a look at what he was do­ing.”

“I now believe lo­cal banana pro­duc­tion could pro­vide a source of tasty sprayfree ba­nanas, plus pro­duce lu­cra­tive re­wards for re­gional landown­ers. As a stock farmer, I also see the pos­si­bil­ity of banana plants as a stock-food source for grow­ing around ef­flu­ent ponds on dairy farms. The plant it­self soaks up mas­sive amounts of wa­ter and stock love the whole banana plant – leaves, stems and stalks. All this has come from see­ing what Owen has done.”

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Owen Schafli and his wife Linda moved to New Zealand from South Africa in 2008 where Owen com­mer­cially grew ba­nanas and other trop­i­cal crops. They bought a bush prop­erty in Parua Bay about six years ago and Owen has grad­u­ally cleared pock­ets amongst the bush to create thriv­ing banana blocks, as well as other trop­i­cal fruit­ing trea­sures.

“The 17acre [6.8 hectares] block we bought was in re-growth bush and gorse around a river basin”, Owen says. “Seven acres [2.8 hectares] is in QEII Re­serve, and we’ve so far cleared

and planted pock­ets to­talling four hectare. We keep each clump to three acres of the re­main­ing 10 acres. The stems – the mother that is flow­er­ing sur­round­ing bush gives per­fect shel­ter and bear­ing, the daugh­ter as the next and a mi­cro­cli­mate for our ba­nanas and main stem, and the grand­daugh­ter to other trop­i­cal crops, and the di­verse take over from her. A one-me­tre high range of both flora and fauna help keep stem will start flow­er­ing here after the plants nat­u­rally healthy.” about a year, and a bunch will take up

to six months to ma­ture de­pend­ing Owen is grow­ing seven va­ri­eties of

on tem­per­a­ture and the age of the banana in­clud­ing Dwarf Cavendish,

plant. Clumps con­tinue to flower and Goldfin­ger, Wil­liams, and four Lady

set fruit all year. When the fruit-set is Fin­ger va­ri­eties. “We used the tall

com­plete, we break off the re­main­ing Lady Fin­ger as wind­break and we now

flower and stem and we now have a have plants from one to five years old

mar­ket for the flower heads re­tail­ing with the shorter Dwarf Cavendish

at $15 to our Asian com­mu­nity. Our plants grow­ing un­der the rest. The

bunches tend to be 20 to 30 ki­los so Dwarf Cavendish has the ad­van­tage

we prop the mother stem for sup­port. of pro­duc­ing bunches at an ac­ces­si­ble

We bag bunches in June and July, and har­vest height.”

take the bags off again in Au­gust. We “Each clump be­gins from a sucker and har­vest at the first sign of colour on we’ve grad­u­ally built up our num­bers the bunch and most of our crop is sold and va­ri­eties, plant­ing at about three by word of mouth.We sell by the hand me­tres apart or around 1,080 plants a – usu­ally ten to twelve ba­nanas for $5 – and we take any ex­cess down to the lo­cal Parua Bay mar­ket. We also sell plant pups or suck­ers.”

After har­vest, the mother stem is pruned off to about shoul­der height and left stand­ing as a wa­ter source to feed into the clump. Prun­ing ex­cess stems and leaves (to let light in) is con­tin­u­ous work for Owen and they car­pet the ground as a rich mulch un­der the plants. “Ba­nanas are heavy

feed­ers, and after this dry sum­mer, we’ve learnt that in those con­di­tions, growth is also more con­sis­tent with ir­ri­ga­tion. Ba­nanas love wa­ter and are al­right in clay as long as the wa­ter can drain away.”

“We’re con­tin­u­ing to carve out pock­ets in the bush for plant­ing ba­nanas, but we also have blocks of fruit­ing pineap­ples, cof­fee with beans on, pas­sion­fruit, pa­paya, sugar cane with ma­ture stems, and fruit­ing prickly pear. I’m keen on grow­ing what is pro­duc­tive, eco­nomic, and tastes good – so al­though we grew dragon fruit that looked fan­tas­tic, the taste was dis­ap­point­ing.”

Owen is part of the newly-formed Trop­i­cal Fruit Grow­ers group and is work­ing closely with Hugh Rose to pro­vide a range of source ma­te­rial and con­sult­ing ad­vice to in­ter­ested landown­ers.

Klaus Lotz is an­other in­flu­en­tial pi­o­neer North­land banana grower with com­mer­cial in­ter­na­tional banana grow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. As with Owen, he sim­ply as­sumed it was pos­si­ble here too, and made it so.

Klaus has lived and worked in Mat­apouri Bay near Whangarei on a 60ha com­mu­nity trust prop­erty with his wife Vanessa Kee­gan and their fam­ily for 13 years, and has been grow­ing ba­nanas com­mer­cially there for eight years. “We have 200 ma­ture banana clumps and we sell four to five crates a week at the Whangarei Grow­ers Mar­ket all year, plus some banana plant pups.”

Klaus Lotz is a lead­ing per­ma­cul­ture in­no­va­tor with more than 30 years of in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence in con­sult­ing, teach­ing, re­search and prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion, and he has a de­gree in

Or­ganic Agri­cul­ture from his home­land of Ger­many. As a young man, Klaus was at­tracted to the Brazil­ian jun­gle and dur­ing his time in Brazil, he worked along­side Ernst Goetsch re­vers­ing the de­for­esta­tion of the Ama­zo­nian for­est, re­turn­ing it from burnt bare land to nat­u­ral di­verse for­est ca­pa­ble of sus­tain­able in­come from peren­nial foods – in­clud­ing ba­nanas. Later he was in­volved in con­vert­ing mar­ginal land back to fer­til­ity in the low­land Ama­zon re­gion in Bo­livia. With a young fam­ily and a sense of ad­ven­ture, Klaus and Vanessa heard tempt­ing tales about New Zealand, so they worked as Wwoofers here for a few months then set­tled on their Mat­apouri land. “Our piece of land was a run-down steep sheep farm so we had to clear wat­tle, make ter­races, and build up the soil be­fore we started. No-one was grow­ing ba­nanas on any scale here then so we ex­per­i­mented with va­ri­eties and have set­tled on mostly Misi Luki (a Lady Fin­ger) and Goldfin­ger, a cul­ti­var suited to sub­trop­i­cal con­di­tions and de­vel­oped in Hon­duras. Ba­nanas crop well here and in our sub-trop­i­cal cli­mate we don’t get the trop­i­cal pests and dis­eases, but our mar­ginal cli­mate may present other is­sues in time. In­ter­est­ingly, we had the Si­ga­toka fun­gus in Bo­livia but it seems to be less of an is­sue in a di­verse or­chard, and was never a prob­lem for us there.”

With their banana plants now 10 to 12 years old, Klaus says it is time to re­view pri­or­i­ties for their food for­est prop­erty. “Un­til re­cently, my em­pha­sis has been on the ecol­ogy of food forests and I taught Sus­tain­able Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment at NorthTec to sup­ple­ment our in­come. But now I

want to marry the land’s ecol­ogy with its econ­omy. We set up the ba­nanas here ini­tially as a cash crop on a cot­tage in­dus­try ba­sis plus they pro­vide great mulch, so they have en­abled us to es­tab­lish our greater vi­sion for the prop­erty in­clud­ing our tree crops like che­r­i­moya. Ba­nanas are just one step in de­vel­op­ing a ma­ture for­est gar­den from an­nual crops or grass­land. We can’t keep that process on standby just be­cause we favour one crop. We can go back and for­ward in suc­ces­sion, but not stand still.”

“So ba­nanas will con­tinue to be part of our project but our place is too steep and the lo­gis­tics are too lim­ited here to make ba­nanas our fu­ture pri­or­ity. We also run Per­ma­cul­ture De­sign Cer­tifi­cate pro­grammes, I work as a per­ma­cul­ture con­sul­tant, and we run a range of prac­ti­cal courses here in­tro­duc­ing peo­ple to the many in­te­grated lay­ers that make up a pro­duc­tive food for­est.”

Fur­ther north at Lake Ngatu near Kaitaia, Deb­bie and Dave Battcher grow ba­nanas as one strand of their busi­ness. “We sell three crates of ba­nanas ev­ery week at Kaitaia mar­ket”, Deb­bie says. “Cus­tomers of­ten queue with their torches at 6:45am and we sell out by 9am.”

Deb­bie and David are for­mer dairy farm­ers from Ruawai. “We made the move fur­ther north to sim­plify our life, and we now have 10 acres. We got rid of some old av­o­ca­dos and pine trees and planted ba­nanas, man­darins, fei­joas (the ear­li­est in New Zealand), av­o­ca­dos, nuts and olives. We run an ac­com­mo­da­tion lodge and two hol­i­day rental cot­tages.”

“We have about 300 banana plants in two main rows that are a mix of Wil­liams and Sugar Ba­nanas (Lady Fin­ger). We give them lots of com­post and gran­u­lar sea­weed as well as a liq­uid spray of sea­weed and some potas­sium. We spray Con­queror Oil if we need to for pests, and the plants are all on ir­ri­ga­tion.”

“We’re five de­grees warmer here than Kaitaia be­cause we don’t get their south-west winds and our soil is a lighter peaty sand. Our cus­tomers say our ba­nanas make really frothy smooth­ies and creamy ice cream, and we have one cus­tomer who buys $40 of our ba­nanas ev­ery week at $5 a hand, plus some av­o­ca­dos – both of which he uses for smooth­ies for his fam­ily.”

“We love what we do, we love learn­ing, and we love giv­ing peo­ple a good ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Mean­while back in Parua Bay, Hugh Rose is watch­ing his first 200 banana plants grow and push up suck­ers…and do­ing his sums.

“We have a sev­eral va­ri­eties here in­clud­ing Misi Luki as a shel­ter belt, Dwarf Cavendish, Wil­liams, Goldfin­ger, Plan­tain (a veg­etable cook­ing banana), Roberts, and we’re look­ing for Blue Java which can han­dle colder con­di­tions. If I could get a hectare cov­ered in ba­nanas 3m apart, those 1,000 to 1,500 plants could within two years each pro­duce at least 10kg of fruit which, sell­ing at $2 a kilo­gram (lo­cal ba­nanas cur­rently sell for $5 a kilo), would re­turn $20,000 to $30,000 per hectare.”

Some­one else has done the num­bers for sup­ply­ing just 10% of North­land’s present banana con­sump­tion – and that’s a big num­ber.

“The num­bers are ap­peal­ing”, Hugh says, “but at the mo­ment they are just num­bers. Ba­nanas have been grown in the north for a long time but pre­vi­ously de­vel­op­ment has been lim­ited by un­suit­able va­ri­eties, lack of main­te­nance, and lo­gis­tics. Our Trop­i­cal Fruit Grow­ing group con­sists of 20 of us hop­ing to en­cour­age, source, and co-or­di­nate the dis­tri­bu­tion of both in­for­ma­tion and banana stems to in­ter­ested landown­ers. We’re put­ting to­gether a grow­ing man­ual, al­ready have a shed of­fered as a pos­si­ble banana pack­house, and we’re look­ing at adapt­ing ex­ist­ing other lo­cal in­dus­try mod­els for fruit col­lec­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion.”

To learn more about trop­i­cal fruit grow­ing or avail­able banana cul­ti­vars con­tact Hugh Rose on hugh@prose.co.nz.

Or for gen­eral banana in­for­ma­tion check out:

https:// lo­cal­food­north­land. org/pro­duc­tion/grow­ers/ba­nanas/.

Mort and Carolyn Niko­lai­son own an or­chard in Puke­tapu. They are the only grow­ers in the coun­try of a jumbo-sized yel­low-flesh peach, and hold IP rights to pro­duce the in­trigu­ing fruit.

Just over 4.5ha planted is with ap­prox­i­mately 2,300 Beryl’s De­light peach trees of var­i­ous ages - the old­est be­ing 10 years.

Find­ing this rare peach came about fol­low­ing a fate­ful com­bi­na­tion of chance and some­one’s in­tu­itive cu­rios­ity.

Mort and Carolyn were for­merly in part­ner­ship with Frank Lauge­sen; he was the one who ini­tially found the peach.

The story goes is that some­one was eat­ing a big fresh peach very late in the sea­son. Frank asked where the peach came from. Ap­par­ently it was lo­cated in a ‘Hawkes Bay back­yard’ – but no in­for­ma­tion about lo­ca­tion was passed on other than this. Frank, Mort and Carolyn went for­ward and se­cured the va­ri­ety rights from there.

“We grew some, trailed it and just kept on plant­ing, how­ever, last year we bought out the busi­ness part­ner,” Mort says.

Nam­ing the fruit came about by a chance re­mark by Frank’s late wife, Beryl Lauge­sen, who took a bite out of the peach and said ‘that’s de­light­ful’ – hence the name. Ini­tially after find­ing the rare tree; they ap­proached Mike Malone, from Plant and Food in Have­lock North.

“He was the plant va­ri­ety rights guy and we got it checked out and tested to see if there was any­thing else reg­is­tered like it. There wasn’t, so ba­si­cally we went for­ward from there.

“While that process was un­der­way, we planted 100 trees to see how it would go. At the time our prop­erty was bare land, and was look­ing to do some­thing with it.”

Of the orig­i­nal tree – Mort still doesn’t know its lo­ca­tion; “we were never en­light­ened as to where it was.”

The ra­tio­nale be­hind se­cur­ing IP rights was to guar­an­tee the proper man­age­ment of the va­ri­ety.

“We wanted to en­sure we got some­thing out of it. Other­wise, if we didn’t have any IP rights it would have been an open mar­ket. It could have been planted by any­one, and then there’s no ben­e­fit to us be­cause you’re com­pet­ing against ev­ery­one.

“This way we have the op­por­tu­nity to have a cor­ner of the mar­ket to our­selves for a while – rightly or wrongly – that’s the way the world is,” Mort ex­plains.

Upon meet­ing the soft-spo­ken cou­ple, within min­utes, any­one will see there’s a real fire in their hearts for these big, beau­ti­ful beasts of fruit.

Mort beams as he tries to put into words how he feels about this spe­cial crop.

with which we get good re­sults. We don’t have any bird prob­lems here sur­pris­ingly – prob­a­bly be­cause there are enough grapes ripe next door.”

Just be­fore har­vest Mort and Carolyn love strolling through the fully laden or­chard at night.

“To see tree after tree, heavy with fruit is heart­en­ing. Walk­ing through or­chard at night in the moon­light gives you an en­hanced per­spec­tive.

“Night photos, sur­pris­ingly pro­vides a bet­ter in­di­ca­tion of vol­umes be­cause of the con­trast of the light shin­ing off the fruit,” he ex­plains.

Carolyn says Mort’s worked hard to make Beryl’s De­light a clean fruit.

Or­chard best prac­tice is high on their pri­or­ity list and hav­ing a clean or­chard is a non-ne­go­tiable.

Hy­giene is a must. Dur­ing prun­ing, tools and cut­ting equip­ment are sani­tised to stop the spread of any un­seen dis­ease.

A few weeks after har­vest there is no ev­i­dence of fruit. All pieces are re­moved from both on trees and the ground, then mulched and taken away. Ev­ery row is raked out thor­oughly and cleaned up.

“We’ve been very lucky, over the last few years, we’ve worked quite closely with the guys from Plant & Food [Plant & Food Re­search], as we are one of their trial or­chards,” says Mort.

He ac­knowl­edges the great work of both Dr Philip A G Elmer (Ruakura, Hamil­ton) and Peter Wood (Have­lock North) from Plant & Food Re­search.

Their in­put has been be­yond mea­sure. The best or­chard prac­tices can be time con­sum­ing but that’s what keeps on mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, he says.

Mort and Carolyn lis­ten to what crop and food ex­perts ad­vise – es­pe­cially be­cause, as Mort says, “we have five months of look­ing after the things!” The big­gest chal­lenge for the cou­ple is al­ways the weather.

“Be­cause the fruit is on the tree for such a long time, ev­ery­thing is thrown at them. We have to cope with ev­ery weather event over that pe­riod. But we’re also do­ing tri­als to see how they re­act when grown in a dif­fer­ent for­mat. Cur­rently we’re look­ing at ver­ti­cal trel­lis sys­tems.”

Mort and Carolyn vol­un­teered to be part of an im­por­tant sci­en­tific re­search into brown rot and grower best prac­tice.

Dr Elmer, a se­nior sci­en­tist and team leader with Plant & Food Re­search says that one of the great­est chal­lenges that faces sum­mer­fruit grow­ers each year in New Zealand is the con­stant threat of brown rot, caused by the fun­gal pathogen, Monilinia fruc­ti­cola.

If weather con­di­tions are favourable close to har­vest, out­breaks of brown rot can oc­cur, with fruit symp­toms lit­er­ally ap­pear­ing overnight.

“As a gen­eral rule, the later a cul­ti­var ma­tures in the grow­ing sea­son, the greater the brown rot risk,” he says.

Peter Wood, a plant pathol­o­gist with PFR at the Have­lock North Re­search Cen­tre was the project’s co-leader.

He says that grow­ing the lat­est ma­tur­ing peach cul­ti­var in New Zealand ‘Beryl’s De­light’ means that brown rot risks will al­ways be po­ten­tially high. This is be­cause the cul­ti­var ma­tures at a time in the au­tumn when sig­nif­i­cant, mul­ti­ple rain­fall events can oc­cur in Hawke’s Bay dur­ing that time of the sea­son.

The Sum­merGreen Fu­tures (SGF) project, which ran from 2013 to 2015, was a joint sec­tor part­ner­ship between Sum­mer­fruit New Zealand, PFR, and the Min­istry for Pri­mary In­dus­tries - Sus­tain­able Farm­ing Fund and Heinz-Wat­tie’s Ltd.

One of the pri­mary aims was to pro­vide sum­mer­fruit grow­ers, such Mort and Carolyn, with a set of new best prac­tice strate­gies to min­imise the im­pact of brown rot on or­chard prof­itabil­ity.

Peter and Phil de­vel­oped the 14-point ac­tion plan, with very late sea­son, high brown rot risk cul­ti­vars in mind.

Mort and Carolyn were ea­ger to im­ple­ment the brown rot ac­tion plan on their prop­erty, and set aside a one-hectare block of Beryl’s De­light, there­after called the SGF block, to eval­u­ate the ef­fec­tive­ness and prac­ti­cal­ity of these prac­tices.

Brown rot man­age­ment in the SGF block was then com­pared with that in a con­ven­tion­ally man­aged block of ‘Beryl’s De­light’.

1. A row of Lady Fin­ger ba­nanas as shel­ter for cof­fee and pineap­ples at Owen’s.

6. Newly planted banana stems in bush felled pocket plan­ta­tion at Owen’s. 7. Sup­port­ing a ma­tur­ing banana bunch at Owen’s. 8. Ripen­ing Lady Fin­ger ( fore­ground) and Dwarf Cavendish ba­nanas at Owen’s. 9. Banana neigh­bours Owen and Hugh at Owen’s plan­tat

11. Klaus Lotz har­vest­ing a banana bunch in his food for­est at Mat­apouri. Photo cour­tesy Frida Kee­gan.

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