Going bananas for Carnarvon produce

Going bananas for Carnarvon produce


News
Aa

As the world becomes more aware of the impact plastic is having on the environment, people as consumers have started to pay more attention to how their food is packaged.

Aa
Carnarvon banana growers Chris (chairman of SBC) and Nadine Collins. Photo: Anton Blume and SBC.

Carnarvon banana growers Chris (chairman of SBC) and Nadine Collins. Photo: Anton Blume and SBC.

AS the world becomes more aware of the impact plastic is having on the environment, people as consumers have started to pay more attention to how their food is packaged.

While the reason to package fresh produce might be as simple as for customer convenience - so they can just pick up a bag of beans and be on their way, for some items there is more to it.

This is the case for Carnarvon grown bananas.

The Sweeter Banana Co-operative (SBC) was created to support Carnarvon banana growers who were trying to compete with Queensland producers, but they were losing the battle.

In the 1960s the Carnarvon banana industry was thriving and held 100 per cent of the banana market in WA.

Doriana Mangili, manager of the Sweeter Banana Co-operative (SBC), is so passionate about bananas that some might say 'she's bananas about bananas'. Ms Mangili has been a long time champion of Carnarvon-grown bananas, trying to educate consumers and retailers about how they are grown and what makes Carnarvon bananas so special. Photo: Anton Blume.

Doriana Mangili, manager of the Sweeter Banana Co-operative (SBC), is so passionate about bananas that some might say 'she's bananas about bananas'. Ms Mangili has been a long time champion of Carnarvon-grown bananas, trying to educate consumers and retailers about how they are grown and what makes Carnarvon bananas so special. Photo: Anton Blume.

But then north Queensland opened up as a growing region and Carnarvon couldn't compete.

As with most horticulture produce, presentation is crucial, and Queensland bananas became a more 'attractive' product than Carnarvon bananas.

Queensland bananas are bigger, have a glossy shine and don't mark as easily as Carnarvon bananas.

But Carnarvon bananas are spray-free, sweeter, creamier and many will say they are the best when it comes down to taste.

With banana growers struggling, a group of 50 producers decided to join forces in 2002 to create SBC.

They knew some consumers liked the size of Carnarvon bananas as they fit perfectly into lunch boxes and Queensland bananas were too big.

They were also a good portion size for children.

SBC manager Doriana Mangili said that by targeting these consumers and packaging Carnarvon bananas to clearly differentiate them from Queensland ones, SBC had created a market for their less prettier, but better tasting bananas and labelled them 'lunchbox bananas'.

"The co-operative was born based out of a need to innovate for growers to keep going," Ms Mangili said.

But there was also another need to package.

As Carnarvon bananas are grown in a sub-tropical climate, they have thinner skins than Queensland ones, which grow in tropical conditions, they are more fragile and therefore more prone to bruising once ripened.

SBC bananas are spray-free, so to combat pests the co-operative uses the Bugs For Bugs management system, which introduces insects to eat other insect pests. It creates a healthy, natural ecosystem in which the bananas thrive. Photos: Rachel Steadman, SBC.

SBC bananas are spray-free, so to combat pests the co-operative uses the Bugs For Bugs management system, which introduces insects to eat other insect pests. It creates a healthy, natural ecosystem in which the bananas thrive. Photos: Rachel Steadman, SBC.

"Under normal supermarket conditions, where it's common for people to pick them up, separate bunches etc, they would get very bruised and become unsaleable," Ms Mangili said.

"Consumers want ripe bananas so we have to sell them packaged as they're very fragile."

She said SBC did a trial with a retailer in Geraldton where the store only sold Carnarvon bananas - loose and packaged.

"After about six weeks, the retailer asked to not have anymore loose bananas as they were getting 60-70pc waste and retail stores will not sell your product with that level of wastage," she said.

While packaging has been a necessity for SBC, Ms Mangili said it has been a challenge that the co-operative is working on.

SBC has become proactive in trying to reduce its environmental impact in other ways - it uses reusable plastic crates for all packaging as opposed to single use cardboard and only selling into WA markets means the co-operative's fuel emissions are minimal.

Waste has been reduced from up to 60pc being thrown away due to being 'out of specification' to less than 5pc since the group started packaging and branding its product.

"It's important to be careful before jumping on bandwagons for things that we think are good and consider the whole picture," Ms Mangili said.

"So we are trying to educate people as to why we package.

 Inside the packing shed at SBC, Carnarvon.

Inside the packing shed at SBC, Carnarvon.

"We are also investigating more sustainable ways of packaging which is challenging due to the lack of suitable, cost effective, locally made alternatives."

With 22 growers now making up SBC, the co-operative has secured more than 50pc of the Carnarvon banana industry.

"Growers all farm on their own properties around Carnarvon," Ms Mangili said.

"We are a co-operative group, which means the growers get paid for what they send in - both in volume and quality, and we proportionately share the costs of running the packing and marketing operation.

"Every week the growers tell us how many bunches are coming and we can work out, based on what we did the week before, how many cartons of bananas we will produce.

"We will then go to our retailers and tell them how many we have, agree on a price and pack everything here.

"We know exactly where our product is going and what price we are getting before it leaves the shed.

"Before the co-operative was formed, growers would basically send the product to market and hope that it sells, with no idea about what is going on and what their return was going to be."

Some growers in Carnarvon prefer not to work collaboratively and produce and sell individually, but have followed suit by packaging into bags and also calling them lunchbox bananas.

SBC enables family and smaller growers to be in the marketplace with big retailers as their consumers.

Ms Mangili said it can be incredibly difficult for smaller growers to compete with the larger, corporate producers.

"The co-operative enables us to keep family farming going because we have consolidated and can supply the major retailers," she said.

"Around 70pc of fruit and vegetables purchased in Australia is purchased through the major chains, so if you are not supplying the big retailers, you can not access 70pc of the consumer market."

SBC also sells into farmer's markets and various other outlets, including its second grade bananas which are sold loose as they are not ripened to the same level.

Carnarvon bananas have thinner skins than those grown in tropical Queensland. Because the trees are closer together, which is necessary to create a microclimate, the bananas are also more prone to marking. Although they might not look as shiny and unmarked as Queensland bananas, many claim they are tastier.

Carnarvon bananas have thinner skins than those grown in tropical Queensland. Because the trees are closer together, which is necessary to create a microclimate, the bananas are also more prone to marking. Although they might not look as shiny and unmarked as Queensland bananas, many claim they are tastier.

Some might wonder whether banana leaves could be another avenue for value-adding, but Carnarvon's windy conditions from the sea breeze causes banana leaves to be shredded easily, soon after they have emerged.

For banana leaves to be repurposed, they need to be grown in still tropical climates.

As Carnarvon's environment is quite different to Queensland's, the way bananas are grown also differ, which also explains their difference in appearance.

With Carnarvon's arid sub-tropical environment, the region receives little rainfall, while Queensland has very high rainfall, being tropical.

Carnarvon bananas take twice as long to grow - about 14 to 18 months, whereas Queensland bananas reach maturity after seven to nine months.

SBC also doesn't use any sprays, as Carnarvon doesn't have many of the pests and diseases that arise in tropical environments.

But aerial spraying wouldn't be possible in Carnarvon even if pests and diseases were more prevalent as the farms are too close together, so there wouldn't be enough of a buffer zone.

Carnarvon's unique growing environment comes with its challenges and benefits and the industry has needed to develop innovative approaches to managing some of those difficulties, for example, SBC uses Bugs For Bugs to manage pests.

By introducing insects to eat other insects that are a pest, they eventually kill off the pest and the introduced insects die out as the food source is reduced.

"It works really well and we have a really healthy ecosystem, so it's a good way of farming," Ms Mangili said.

"And if you kick around the soil in our banana patches, there's lots of beneficial insects around and it all keeps a healthy balance.

"Once a banana tree has given its only bunch after it has been growing for 14 to 18 months, it is knocked down, chopped into smaller pieces and left on the ground.

"Because we grow our bananas a lot closer together than Queensland ones (Carnarvon rows are about 1.5 to two metres apart, while Queensland rows are about 5m apart), they somewhat cross over and create a microclimate which is humid and the old trees are mulched down."

Carnarvon bananas are purposely grown closer together to have a micro climate within the patch, which mimics Queensland's climate, otherwise Carnarvon's environment can be hot and dry in summer (up to 45 plus degrees which burns bananas), and windy and cold in the winter (with night time temperatures down to 9-10 degrees).

Ms Mangili said a struggle for the horticulture industry was managing the balance between supply and demand.

"Horticulture is really hard, because if we are providing for example 2000 cartons a week of bananas, that's 30,000 individual packages and you could say that's 30,000 families buying our bananas," she said.

"But living in a climate like Carnarvon, a lot can happen in the growing time.

"If a full moon happens we might get some warmer weather and humidity, and suddenly we have 4000 cartons.

"That means we have to find 30,000 new families to buy our product.

"People are creatures of habit - they are not just going to swap, so the only mechanism we have is price.

"So we might halve our price and go below the cost of production because we need to entice people to try our bananas.

"We might do this for a few weeks and people like them after trying them, but then we might get a cold snap and production will slow down, resulting in consumers going back to buying Queensland bananas, so it's a really hard balance."

SBC has been looking into ways it can value add with excess product and bananas that don't meet the retailers' high standards, or sell to another market if the price is too low.

"Having the option to do something with excess product when we have it, or if the price is too low and we decide not to send them, then we want to have something else we can do with our product," Ms Mangili said.

"But that is a whole new market development which takes time and effort, so it's a work in progress.

"We tried banana bread, because everyone loves banana bread, but suddenly we realised our competitors were Sara Lee, retailers' own brands etc. and our banana bread was costing twice as much by the time it got to retail.

"We would rather partner with someone who was already wholesaling into the industry and sell them our second grade bananas.

"But we would have to ripen them and have a food safe-accredited facility that was able to process them - maybe peel and freeze bananas, so it is a big investment, which might only be about 10pc of our production, but we definitely need to have another avenue."

Ms Mangili's passion about the much-loved superfruit is clearly ripe and somewhat contagious.

And her desire to support Carnarvon growers and WA's only banana growing region is truly inspiring.

She hopes that by informing people about how Carnarvon bananas are grown and why they are packaged, will bring more support to the industry to enable it to continue to grow, so that growers can make good returns on their produce and consumers can enjoy WA's sweeter bananas long into the future.

  • Mollie Tracey travelled to Carnarvon as a guest of the Gascoyne Food Council.
Aa

From the front page

Sponsored by