Better Bananas, Naturally

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-By John Boley

Bananas are good for you. No doubt about it. They help with anything from hangovers to mosquito bites, aiding weight control and cheering depression on the way. They contain three natural sugars – sucrose, fructose and glucose – combined with fibre. A banana gives an instant, sustained and substantial boost of energy.

Research has proven that just two bananas provide enough energy for a strenuous 90-minute workout. No wonder the banana is the number one fruit with the world’s leading athletes.
But not all bananas are created equal. Frank and Dianne Sciacca of Pacific Coast Produce, located near Innisfail in the heart of the banana growing region of northern Queensland, believe they have built a better banana and they talk of the development of their ‘ecoganic’ growing system with a passion.

As progressive farmers they questioned how and why they were farming the way they did and how could their farm (and its soil) be commercially viable in twenty years’ time. The thinking led to research and the research led to integrated ecological management of the production systems on the farm aimed at improving its environmental health. Pacific Coast Produce was on a journey that would take the best part of a decade and a mission to produce the tastiest and most ‘natural’ fruit possible.

This is a patented growing system, Dianne explains. “It’s not just about substituting organic products for synthetics, still mimicking the commercial farming philosophy and putting out as much product as you want, providing it’s organic.”

Typically, banana growers get rid of grasses and weeds. But this system is about “promoting the fact that you do have grasses and weeds, leaving them there and letting them flower because they become a food source for insects that you need on your property.” The farm still requires to be managed in a commercial manner, but with entomologists coming to the farm every two weeks “to monitor the whole insect world. It’s not just about pest insects that affect the crop, but also about ensuring you are creating a balanced soil with all the organisms needed in a complex ecosystem.” It was, she says, never about adopting ‘organic’ practices which were using products that were deemed to be non-synthetic but which had the same effect as synthetics in a commercial farm system.

This system can work with products other than bananas and is adaptable to non-tropical climates. “We have started working with an avocado farm and we are in discussions with a mango farm and paw-paws. It has taken 10-11 years of very intensive research to nail this scientifically and get the data to support it” – including spending nearly $30,000 in the last five years building a database containing all the activity of the farm for reporting purposes. “When you start making claims in the public domain you must have data to back them up.”

The decision to go to a full ecosystem instead of just being ‘organic’ (you sense Frank and Dianne are very scornful of the latter term, which like ‘green’ is so loosely used as to have become almost meaningless) was really driven, says Dianne, by Frank’s belief in creating a more balanced farming system and sustainable marketing system.

“We had a [sugar] cane farm and we seemed to be going backwards, needing to use more fertiliser each year, seeing the soils deteriorate and Frank thought it was just not sustainable – the way we were heading, the land would not be usable in the future – and from the point of view of the family and the land, ‘this is not what I want’. So we started doing bananas.”

But if you don’t have a sustainable marketing system you can’t be sustainable on the farm either. “That’s where I came in,” says Dianne, who was working at TAFE at the time on rural training courses.

Frank asked her to come back to the farm because he needed assistance in marketing the product after the trials were complete. That was in 2000. Now everyone who buys these bananas “knows they have a fruit grown under this ecoganic farming system.”

One aspect of the marketing is a distinctive wax tip to each fruit. One day Dianne “came home and saw these bananas with paint on the tips. I laughed and said no-one would buy them, but we had a go anyway. We used a cheese wax which was not a success because bananas go from cold temperature to warm – people take them home in the car and they get hot and the soft cheese wax was not suitable because people don’t let cheese get hot.” It took some five years, working with the wax manufacturer, to refine it. “We had to retain its environmental aspects and biodegradability and we finally came up with a wax that worked.”

It takes four years to get to a stage where the ecosystem is working for you and not a liability because it takes that long for the beneficial insects to outweigh the pests, Frank explains. “In the early days there are a lot of losses. But after those four years you have some confidence in the growing system.” A lot of it is about self-confidence. “It’s been good for us and good for all the growers that have come on board. Ask them if they would want to go back to the old system and all of them will say ‘no’.”

Frank says that process helped him to become a better (farm) manager. Typically it’s easier for a farmer to react to a problem by simply sloshing on a 20-litre drum of some chemical designed to deal with a specific pest quickly, but obviously the long term effect is not good for the soil or the system. With an ecoganic regime, it’s necessary and beneficial to predict, to work out what might be happening in three or six months’ time, and that way to avoid the need for the ‘quick fix’. “There are more sustainable practices.”

The ecoganic system has reached a point of stability but constant monitoring is needed, although the company is able to use in its marketing the phrases ‘grown as nature intended’ and ‘farming with nature’.

Crucially, says Frank, the quality of the product must stand up to comparison. People might (in some places) be prepared to pay slightly more for their electricity in order to get it from sustainable wind or solar resources, but they will never tolerate a banana that tastes less good just because it’s ‘sustainable’. “Can the consumer taste the difference? That’s another area where you need to perform; that’s why organic systems are now output-based rather than input-based. When we do shows, we offer the product to consumers and they say it tastes different to other bananas and ask why. There’s no big science to it really, it’s all about how the product has been grown.”

He says the commercial reality of needing to make a piece of land more intensively productive has tended to blind people to the fact that the product itself gets changed by the intensive methods. Pacific Coast Produce is reversing the process and their bananas have a taste which is much more nearly what nature intended. “The consumer has to place a value on the product and it comes from tasting it.”

Can the system be applied on large-scale fruit farms? “Of course it can. Anywhere in Australia, not only in tropical conditions.” The sticking point, Dianne says “is their thinking. Technically it’s possible,” but they don’t want to accept lower yield unless they can gain a price margin to make up for it. Frank says there is a parallel with chickens. Intensively reared, they can be ready in 35 weeks, but as free range animals they will take longer – but taste better.

PC is proud to be able to sell to Coles and Woolworths (certification took a great investment in time and effort) and exports its bananas as far abroad as Hong Kong. Dianne is a serious marketer. She has researched the theory and practice of consumer behaviour, conducted focus groups and examined carefully the distinction in behaviour between the desire to buy organic products and the reality, which is that only a small proportion of those who would like to buy organic actually DO it.

One extraordinary finding was that the perception among the public was that organic food should cost LESS than conventional products because there was a lower overhead – no expensive chemicals and fertilisers, for example. It’s a value proposition like any other, but the consumer lacks the information to make that judgement. That is partly because certain foods fall into the category of ‘staples’, bananas (and potatoes) being among them. “It’s always a challenge to value-add to something like this which is a staple.” Put differently, the consumer doesn’t actively realise there is a choice in buying bananas – they are ‘all the same’ until he or she is led to taste the ecoganic version. Eating truly IS believing.

Frank believes a healthy earth can help people to be healthy. “If the earth is unhealthy, you can’t have healthy people. You only live so long and you have to pass on the right way of doing things to the next generation. My farm has got birds, butterflies, ants, bugs, it’s got grass and weeds – that’s my farm. And that’s what people want to hear. It’s simple – the product has to taste good and contain everything that nature provided – nothing more than that.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 9:21 AM AEDT