Climate and the needs of the fruit vs the big markets
Geraldine: You can’t go below a certain level [of elevation] because you’ll actually start to encounter frost or cold temperatures, and the aspect is really quite important to bananas, that they have a particular aspect, where up North it’s just all on the flat and it just goes on forever.
Lance: Yes, because it’s purely tropical. They don’t get the – although they do still have cold snaps, so I’m told, but nothing of the magnitude—
Geraldine: Yes, nothing that endures like it does here, and it doesn’t produce that dull, grey fruit like we get here.
Geraldine: Coffs Harbour’s grey fruit period is longer again. It takes them longer to come out of it.
And then over in WA, in Carnarvon, they’re on the edge of a desert and they get, like, 47 degrees out in the patch and there’s different problems again for them. They’ve got to have special cooling processes for when they bring the fruit in from the patch, where it comes in really hot, and they put it through misters onto the fruit while it’s still on the bunch to actually bring the temperature down before they start handling the fruit. Because they’re on the edge of a desert, they have very little in terms of disease incursion, and they have irrigation, so they’re not big producers, but what they do, they do very well because of, again, their different conditions to what we’ve got here on the East Coast, compared to what we’ve got on the Northern tropical region as well.
Then you move into the handling side of the fruit as well, and temperature specifications for transporting, the cool supply chain and the good management of that as well is an issue, particularly if you’re looking at short supply changes, distribution stuff into local areas, and then being able to manage that cool chain effectively as well – because there’s nothing worse than having your fruit turn up at the local supermarket and, you know, two days later it’s all gone brown and rotten because the cool chain actually fell down at some point, you know, the cool room turned off, or the van didn’t regulate the temperature properly—-
Lance: Yes, it got too cold.
Geraldine: Yes, it got too cold, or it got left out in the heat, yes.
So it all has to be a period of sort of particular temperature range trucks basically all the way through?
Geraldine: Good management.
Okay, yes, because I mean, people have told me stories about different types of fruits in particular, but vegetables as well, that these things went wrong, or things being not exactly the temperature that was required for their particular product, because it was put in the centre of the truck rather than the—
Lance: Yes, avocados, like, so many people will buy an avocado and it’s black, the bottom or in around the seed, and that’s cold injury because the fruit’s been up too close to the cold unit in the front of the truck, or they’ve got it set too cold. They’re very susceptible to cold injury.
Geraldine: Flavenoids in tomatoes get knocked out if the temperature is too cold, and you end up with just a tasteless bit of mush, you know. Yes, the cool chain handling management side of things is really difficult. Very specialist.
Lance: It’s very fragile. That’s what it comes down to.
Geraldine: Having said that, I’ve seen guys on the forklift driving like they’re on Bathurst, you know, and that infuriates me, because they have no concept of how they’re damaging produce while they’re driving like that.
So it’s just, when you see it treated like that, it’s just like it’s any sort of commodity, it’s a product like whatever, boxes of whatever?
Which is again quite different to the market when you’re just doing it yourself and you’re kind of in control of that?
Lance: Yes, because I mean, that’s what we have to take responsibility for. Like, people just come and complain if there’s a problem, and you just say, well, you replace it for them or give them their money back – which you’re happy to do. It’s sort of possibly not nice at the time, but at the same time, you know, the responsibility is sheeted home to me and you just have to bear that responsibility.
And you can address that a little bit more easily or readily when it’s you rather than a long supply chain where a problem might have occurred at a particular point and you don’t necessarily have much control over what’s going on there?
Lance: And I mean we’ve got the added dimension of the November fruit in this area, you know, where you’ve got all different sizes on one hand, so you’re in all sorts of strife if they’re graded for size.
What makes that November fruit?
Lance: Well, it’s the bunch forming at the coldest time of the year, so it’s mutated. Like, the fruit is, you know, at the base of the ground in June/July when it’s really cold, and because bananas are a tropical plant, it just tells you that they don’t like the cold. So you get all different size bananas on the one hand, basically mutated.
Geraldine: And you can’t sell that.
Lance: Well, I can. We used to just cut them all down years ago.
Yeah, right, okay. Wow.
Geraldine: This is a really contentious issue in terms of the pricing structure for bananas and why it’s actually been so difficult for the sub-tropical growers is that they have their what are called November dumps, and when pricing the structure so that it’s paid on size rather than weight, you get a premium for an extra-large. If you’re coming through a period where you don’t have as many extra-large, but you might be producing an equally good banana that’s only a large, and it has been recognised to be demanded by the consumer, you actually get paid less.
So there’s a huge disparity there in terms of your per acreage return if you can’t keep producing premium extra-large, so there’s a real discrepancy there, and there’s various reasons for that pricing structure to have evolved, which I can’t really go into here, because it is quite political. But it’s been to the detriment of the small scale sub-tropical growers, most of them.
And that’s not – is that something that’s getting driven by consumers – tell me if you can’t answer this, but that demand for the larger—
Lance: No, it’s been driven by supermarkets.
Geraldine: It has never been driven by the consumer.
Lance: That’s what I mean. You find if you deal directly with people, the vast majority of them just want a small or large because—-
Geraldine: 180ml, which is the large.
Lance: If they’ve got children, they want them even smaller, so it’s the complete – that’s one of the things that really gets under my skin—-
Geraldine: Oh, me, too.
Lance: —-because we spend so much of our lives pruning. We prune off five hands, so there’s your profit going on the ground, all the work that you’ve put in to produce those bananas, and you sort of look at them on the ground and you think, ‘Now, why am I doing this?’ Yes, so there’s your profit being thrown away so you can produce these massive great bananas.
I know we went to Ramadas in Brisbane, one of the agents up there that we were sending to at the time. We had these massive great Lady Fingers, and they still weren’t big enough. They were wanting them bigger. So – what – instead of leaving five hands, you were supposed to leave even less? So you were basically just cutting your own throat.
Geraldine: And you still have to buy the fertilizer and it’s your per acre of yield, and you’re dropping half of it on the ground.
Lance: Yes, that’s, you know, madness.
Geraldine: And it’s not a consumer-driven request, that one, and any number of people can tell you from anecdotal evidence and even, you know, some of the research that’s been done on the preferred, perfect banana, and quite often – and the banana industry itself has recognised this, that there’s a need to provide a more diverse range of size.
But there’s not anything you can really do to ensure that you produce larger bananas over all, it’s just a matter of getting rid of the ones that don’t—-
Lance: Well, it’s nutrition.
Geraldine: You bunch prune.
Lance: Yes, it’s that combination. It’s nutrition, like, the more nutrition they get, the bigger the bananas.
Geraldine: And then you cut the bottom ones off so that your top ones get bigger.
Okay, and for the fertilizer, I would imagine that most people use artificial fertilizer. Do you, as an organic farmer?
Lance: We have to use certified organic inputs.
Right, okay, but you’re still having to put—-
Lance: We’re allowed to use – we just follow the Guidelines – we’re allowed to use sulphate of potash. That’s one of the chemical fertilizers, and just composted chook manure. So–
Do you have a ready supply of that?
How do you source it?
Lance: I just buy it in bags. It’s more expensive. If you were mechanised then, yes, you could buy it in bulk, but you have to compost it yourself if you buy it that way, and you really need a machine to handle it. We went down that path and, yeah, you’re sort of back to, ‘Oh, I won’t do that again!’
Geraldine: Right, so it’s just as easy to go and buy it already processed.
Lance: Yes. Consequently, that’s, you basically have, if your place is certified, and you don’t have heaps of money to spare, then you basically just settle for smaller bunches and smaller fruit, because that’s driven by the size of the plant bunch. Everything is driven by the nutrition.