Re­search grant a big boost for banana am­bi­tion

Words and pic­tures by Kris­tine Walsh

The Orchardist - - Profile -

“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.”

LIT­TLE MI­CRO­CLI­MATE

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.

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