This is an edited version of a conversation between Hazel Ferguson, Geraldine O’Flynn, Georgina Powell, and Lance Powell, on 7 March 2013.
Geraldine: My name is Geraldine O’Flynn. I’m an Industry Development Officer for Sub-Tropical Bananas. In the past I’ve also been a grower for about 20 years, and have now stayed in the industry and helping with particularly market development.
Georgia: I’m Georgia Powell. I work at the Markets for my Dad’s farm.
Lance: Lance Powell. I’m a grower, have been growing bananas all my life. Yeah, I’m basically the owner-manager of my own business. We run a mixed certified organic farm at 782, Burringbar Road. We grow bananas, avocados, papaws, citrus, mangos and basically Winter vegetables – whatever variety of vegetables we can.
The area that I’m farming is about 16 hectares. Not all of that is in use, though. Like, some of it is basically just growing forest. Some of it’s too steep and it’s the wrong aspect, too cold in winter, cops too much wind. You have to basically find the right aspects for the things that you want to do, so that the crops have got enough protection, and use the slopes that are not too steep so that you can work the land.
Geraldine: Can I just ask how your Dad came to settle in Burringbar?
Lance: It’s a long story. I’ll never be able to get my head around it, because he [Raymond Powell] had a farm at Terranora on Parkes Drive. He had 120 acres, and he sold it and bought a farm at Burringbar [in 1950], so you tell me – I’ll never be able to figure that one out.
Geraldine: He likes a challenge?
Lance: No, well, I’m pretty sure that, with hindsight, it was the timber. He was a mad – like, he basically came and looked over the place and it had a huge reserve of timber on it, and he thought that he paid 7,000 pounds for it, which was a pretty sizeable sum of money in those days, and he thought that if he had the timber harvested he’d be able to, you know, off-set the cost of the farm, pay off a sizeable amount, and it had 14 acres of bananas on their first or second – second cut, I think – and a dairy, like, that produced—-
One of my most vivid recollections was being up in the forest there when the timber-getters were there, and the amount of the sheer volume of hardwood that they took, 3.5 million super feet. That was one sawmill took that amount, and it was the same old story. The people who were carting the timber made more out of it than Dad did, and that was just because, well, what do you say, dishonesty?
They took it in there to the mill and they measured the logs in there, and they paid him what they thought just in those days, and he could take it or leave it. They’ve got the logs in there. They’re not going to bring them back, yes, so that didn’t work out.
On top of that, the whole history of the place is fairly bizarre. I mean, he had a big hailstorm that took the bananas out in the first year.
I’ve got this etched in my mind, because my father told me that many times that it just took a narrow strip, and the people, all the other banana growers got eight pounds a case all through that winter, and his bananas were completely destroyed. So that’s just the luck of the draw. That’s farming.
Geraldine: Yes. Hail damage is often like that. It just comes through in a band—-
Lance: Yes, and there were no bunch cutters in those days, all Dwarf Cavendish, and so he started diversifying from that point onwards. The dairy was still going, and, yes, my older brother and I were the workforce from a really young age, growing small crops, beans, dwarf beans, tomatoes. They were the main crops that we grew.
At what age would you have started doing that manual labour on the farm?
Lance: About six/seven.
I’d say that the dairying was probably phased out in about 1960, because it was just the cream, because the older dairies always had pigs. Skim milk would go to the pigs and they’d just take the cream, and with our high rainfall and soil degradation, the cream production just went down, like, all the farms through Bangalow, all those areas that started out with this massive cream production, because the soils were so rich, because they took the tree cover off them and you get heavy leaching, the fertility just goes.
So our place, the dairy just went by the by and, yeah, we were just doing small crops, and we still had some other – there were probably four or five banana leases on the place, and we took over those old leases and we were working those.
The original farm was about 500 acres, and in those days the original migrants that came from the Middle East after the Second World War, they used to lease land on people’s properties to grow bananas.
So when prices crashed, I think the main exodus of banana growers was when Coffs Harbour, they planted lots of bananas in the late ‘60s and that’s when all the Macedonian and Greek people just left. They just walked off their farms.
Because they were only leases?
They weren’t beholden to—
Lance: No, and they just couldn’t make a living. They decided they couldn’t make it. Well the bananas were worthless, so they just left, and on our farm there were three or four leases that I can remember. We worked those in conjunction with growing small crops.
And that was just an identified area?
Lance: Right, plantation.
And that was a financial arrangement between the owner of the land and—
Lance: Yes, he paid so much per acre.
So that would often happen when there was someone running a dairy, and then they’d just lease the land that was appropriate for growing bananas?
Lance: Yes; and then in 1974 we started planting. That was the first bananas that were actually planted of our own, like, that we started from suckers. Then I’ve done it continuously since then, planting and working. We had up until about 1995, I suppose, we had about 40 acres. You basically just spend your whole life in them. As they say, you might as well pitch your tent and live up there, because that’s your whole life. Like, if you’re not up there, you’re worried about them.
It’s something that’s hard to explain to people, but then that comes back to the labour-intensive nature of what you’re doing on the steeper slopes. You can basically spend your whole life there.
Geraldine: I think there’s an interesting relationship there between earlier farming practices, what Lance’s father may have packed and sent to market on a different transport mechanism altogether. We have trains now, we’ve got trucks, that sort of thing, but certainly the demand side of things is very strong; and as we were talking before about consumer power to drive that, but it’s also about the changing nature of transport delivery, handling, and the quite exacting nature of it now, as opposed to, you know,, back in the day when you packed singles and crates.
Lance: Wooden boxes, yes, all through the ’70s, ‘60s.
Geraldine: I was talking to a grower yesterday and he said, you know, you’d get to the station and they’d be so bruised by the time they got to the station, let alone got any further down the track.
Lance: Well, I just remember the clamps that we used to use for clamping the cases, you know. Like, you’d pack them down and just rrrrrrrr, you know, and you’d think, ‘Wow,’ like, heaven only knows what sort of condition they were in by the time they got there.
Geraldine: Yes. And then you used the plastic crates, and they’d get handled like jelly babies, they’re so soft, and they never get over-stacked, and you certainly wouldn’t be squashing them down the way you used to with the crates.
So is that a bit of a generational thing between your Dad and you, or is that just a change that happened gradually over time as technologies changed and transport changed?
Lance: Well, you know, in those days all the fruit was broken into singles, so they were taken off the hands and manually put into wooden cases, and it’s so time-consuming, rather than just putting in whole hands into a cardboard box.
Geraldine: Why on earth would they have gone in as singles?
Lance: I don’t know.
Geraldine: I don’t know what the imperative would have been there, because it must have been so difficult to handle them at the other end.