Research grant a big boost for banana ambition
Words and pictures by Kristine Walsh
“It is incredible what they have achieved without the science . . . just imagine what they can do with it.”
So says food scientist, Dr Jane Mullaney, who is driving a recently-funded project to explore the feasibility of growing bananas commercially in Gisborne.
The “they” is whanau-based Maori company Tai Pukenga, which heads the pilot under which consultants Trevor Mills and Rodger Bodle have provided support to grower Kevin Brockhurst’s fledgling plantation on Brockhurst’s orchard in Ormond.
There are, of course, plenty of naysayers . . . bananas are tropical fruit, they say.
But in the middle of winter – after the biggest storm of the season and a couple of brisk frosts to boot – the nearly 30 trees Brockhurst has cultivated since December are looking hale and hearty.
Many of the plants had modest beginnings – they were grown from suckers purloined from beside a neighbour’s water tank. Others, however, have decades of research behind them – Gisborne banana afficionado Bodle has spent a lifetime growing banana trees and he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Alongside long-time economic development advocate Mills, Bodle is on-board as an advisor for the project. And both are confident that the science could prove to be just the springboard needed to launch an important opportunity for the East Coast region.
A joint project between Tai Pukenga and AgResearch, the research is being funded with a $93,455 grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Te P-unaha Hihiko: Vision M-atauranga Capability Fund, with an extra $32,000 from AgResearch itself. And it will take a threepronged scientific approach. With the support of technician Anna Larking, Mullaney will explore the nutritional aspects of bananas, AgResearch colleague Dr Andrew Griffiths will use his expertise in genetics to nail down the identity of the most successful varieties and Dr Wajid Hussain – also of AgResearch – will take care of the tissue culture procedures required to propagate plants at scale.
“An environment always has an impact on characteristics so a first step will be to tease out the genotypes of these fruit and
assessing the environmental effects,” Griffiths said.
“Then, in the long term, you can look at what varieties work best, or use the information gathered to develop a variety to suit.”
Hussain will look at international practice around taking tissue cultures from banana plants then make modifications as to the most suitable method of establishing mass production in New Zealand.
“You could do it using suckers (side shoots) but it would take years and years to develop a plantation,” he said.
“Using tissue cultures means you can produce hundreds, thousands of plants without diluting the characteristics of the chosen variety.”
It’s a process he said could be reproduced by growers on their own properties with the set-up of simple, sterile conditions to ward off fungi and disease.
And for her part, Mullaney has already started with the most important factor, the taste test.
“And boy do those Gisborne bananas taste good.”
That box ticked, she will now dig deep to produce peerreviewed science on the nutritional characteristics of the fruit, something that has never been done before.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about things like the nature of carbohydrates in bananas and most of it is just pure invention,” she said.
“That’s what we want to address.”
A LIFE-LONG DREAM
At 79 Bodle has had a couple of health scares so Mills told him to sit down before he delivered the news.
“We’ve got it Rodger, we’ve got the funding,” Mills told him.
“There was this big long silence then he said ‘I don’t bloody believe it’,” Mills laughs of Bodle’s reaction to hearing that a project to research commercial banana growing in Gisborne had been funded to the tune of more than $93,000.
“For Rodger this is the culmination of a dream that has been more than 50 years in the making.” A long-time advocate for economic development in the Gisborne/East Coast region, Mills said that in terms of establishing a banana-growing industry, the figures stack up.
New Zealand imports more than $220 million worth of bananas every year – and that’s despite some buyers’ concerns about ethical sourcing of the fruit, and the environmental impact of how they are grown and transported.
What’s more, they can produce well: A study carried out by Northland Polytechnic estimates that 1108 plants per hectare will produce 10 kilograms of bananas per stem which, at a minimum of $2 per kg, gives a return of at least $22,160 per hectare.
“When you consider that you are getting returns after just a couple of years, that is very competitive against the likes of citrus, grapes, avocados and any other horticulture crops we have in our region at the moment.”
But that, of course, is dependent on the usually tropical plants thriving in the less temperate climes of New Zealand - and that’s where Bodle comes in. The Gisborne local has spent more than 50 years researching and growing bananas – working out what grows where and why.
The hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bananas sold in New Zealand annually are mainly of the Cavendish variety, which requires a tropical climate to flourish. However, Bodle has over the years travelled to visit growers in regions from Israel to Iceland, and imported cold-resistant cultivars that he has further refined to suit the Kiwi climate.
Despite that investment of time, energy and expertise, he had just about given up hope of seeing the commercial growing of bananas in Gisborne but said news of the current research reinvigorated him.
In addition to Bodle’s input, Mills said his enthusiasm is in part driven by the success of banana growers in Northland, where there is a thriving domestic market. (To reciprocate that respect, the Northland-based Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand (TFGNZ) group had scheduled a members-only visit to Gisborne for early September.)
“In fact, Tai Pukenga’s vision for a Tairawhiti Banana Industry is aligned with that of the Northland growers,” he said.
“From 2020 onwards we want to see local bananas widely available at select outlets, to provide bananas in schools, and to have in place supply arrangements with supermarket chains.”
In terms of growing, he said suitable varieties of bananas thrive in all types of soil, though dwarf varieties (up to two metres tall) are favoured to counter wind damage and aid harvest. What’s more, the plants represent a no-waste crop. As a sheep and beef farmer himself, TFGNZ chairman Hugh Rose said that as well as being great for cleaning up nutrient pollution, banana plants can produce dry feed of up to 13 tonnes a hectare, and could therefore help reduce the volumes of palm kernel imported to New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the Northland experience shows that price is not a barrier to success. While imported bananas are generally sold
in the region of $2.50-$3 per kilogram, buyers have showed they will happily pay $5 a kg for locally-grown produce.
And the market is certainly big enough to absorb premium product. With an average household spend on bananas of $88 a year, they’re the nation’s most popular fruit, well ahead of their closest rivals, apples at $61 a year.
In the detail of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment grant funding is the instruction that it is keen to see the “rapid expansion” of a banana industry in Gisborne. Mills is down with that.
“This is absolutely something the region needs – a once in a generation opportunity – but it’s more than that,” he said.
“It is a way of honouring Rodger’s tireless work in the field... it could be his legacy.”
INSPIRING TALK PIQUES SCIENTIST’S INTEREST
Towards the end of 2017, Dr Jane Mullaney was at the Food Futures hui in Gisborne when a tall man in a brightly-coloured Hawaiian shirt took to the stage.
“He seemed like a bit of a reluctant participant but he went on to deliver this truly inspiring talk,” said the food nutritition and health specialist.
“What Trevor was talking about was a banana industry that could be developed in a region that has some economic challenges but has everything going for it, including the right climate.
“And a lot of important work had already been done. They had formed an alliance with growers in Northland; they had a very experienced expert on board; and they had a lot of whanau support behind them.”
Mullaney believed that, with the backing of science, the enthusiasts could bypass many hurdles in their race to establish a viable industry.
So she set to work on producing the proposal that secured AgResearch and local company Tai Pukenga a more than $90,000 grant to do the research required.The research project has a two-year timeline and kicked off in July when Mullaney and team members Larking, Griffiths and Hussain visited the new demonstration farm at Ormond, just out of Gisborne city.
“To be honest, this is not something AgResearch would normally get involved in but I thought that with my contacts on the East Coast we could make a valuable contribution,” said Mullaney (Ngati Porou/Ngati Raukawa).
“Crown Research Institutes can become a bit distant from the communities we want to support, so by getting into those communities we can establish these amazing links and networks.”
In the two years since he and partner Tania Kearns bought their over three hectare orchard in the Ormond Valley, near Gisborne, Brockhurst has been thinking about crops to complement the existing persimmons and walnuts.
“We were already certified organic and had the added advantage of having our own little microclimate right here in the valley,” he said.
“We’d been thinking about bananas so with the support of Trevor and Rodger, we went for it.”
Starting with a dozen suckers from a neighbouring property, Brockhurst established a 200-square metre trial plantation that within six months was doing so well he was able to harvest enough “pups” to create 16 new plants.
And aside from a momentary scuffle with some invading army worms, it’s been surprisingly easy.
“We’ve followed global practice in planting about two metres apart and giving them a good start with some organic sheep pellets, some mulch and watering for a month in the summer heat.
“Since then, though, they haven’t required watering as they store so much, and even after the frosts they’ve been putting out fresh leaves and suckers.”
Brockhurst expects to harvest about 18 months after planting and said waiting until the fruit is fully ripened is a distinct market advantage.
“That way you are buying product that is naturally sweet, and that hasn’t been shipped thousands and thousands of kilometres to get here,” he said.
“Buying ethically and locally is becoming increasingly important to many consumers and we think this is one way to cater for that.”
Just a few months after planting and the test banana plants are already throwing out suckers. Even after moving to a smaller property, banana expert Rodger Bodle has managed to use multiple varieties to establish a small plantation that he says should be producing in no time.
From top:The chance to establish a commercial banana growing operation in Gisborne is “a once in a generation opportunity”, says regional development champion Trevor Mills.“Buying ethically and locally is becoming increasingly important to many consumers and we think ( producing our own bananas) is one way to cater for that,” says grower Kevin Brockhurst.
Kevin Brockhurst (left) and Rodger Bodle in the pilot plantation, near Gisborne.
It is hoped the work of AgResearch ( from left) technician Anna Larking and scientists Dr Wajid Hussain, Dr Jane Mullaney and Dr Andrew Griffiths will help inform the “rapid expansion” of a banana industry in the Gisborne district.