Time for a Kiwi banana industry?
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
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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’.