Hard work brings rewards for Uralba banana growers

SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES: Ian Simpson, of Uralba Valley Bananas, took his grandfather’s advice when he started growing the fruit.
SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES: Ian Simpson, of Uralba Valley Bananas, took his grandfather’s advice when he started growing the fruit. Jamie Brown

THE Simpsons, of New South Wales' Uralba Valley, feel a very special connection with their family-run banana enterprise.

That might because their historic link with the land they manage extends back eight generations - to a time when the valley was full of rich red cedar and a tangled web of rainforest.

Today brothers Warren and Ian, together with Ian's daughter Melinda, manage the 20ha farm, pick and ripen their fruit and store the daily harvest in cool rooms on-site before transporting them throughout the Richmond Valley. Their parents Claire and Colin help too, with book and paddock work.

While Coles buys 80% of their produce, the family has come as close as it can to becoming an independent supplier of locally grown bananas.

The Simpsons' historic link with this lush valley extends back to 1845, at a time when Ballina was a small collection of slab huts and the Uralba Valley was home to wompoo pigeons and nearby Duck Creek held enough platypus for one settler to sew a blanket made from 100 of the small, aquatic marsupials.

The brothers' grandfather on their mother's side, "Ossie" Eggins, understood farming - particularly dairy and beef - but recalled a time in the Great Depression when a patch of bananas were the only produce that kept the seat of his pants in place.

Ossie suggested to Ian, some 34 years ago, that he do the same.

"I surfed a fair bit and my grandfather must have thought I would turn out to be a bum," Ian jokingly recalled.

But the grandson took his elder's advice and planted a north-east facing slope on the old dairy property perched just below the lush Alstonville Plateau.

In the beginning the Simpsons sold mainly to the Sydney markets but soon became disappointed with the reality of their share.

"North Queensland growers got bigger and the agents didn't want to muck around with us," Ian said.

"So we started selling to the shops," Warren said.

Today the family delivers bananas six days a week between Suffolk Park near Byron Bay, south to Evans Head and west to Casino.

On Sundays the work does not stop - growing bananas is a full-time occupation and come summer it is not unusual for family members to clock on for a 75-hour weekly shift.

"As a result there's not a lot of banana farmers left," Warren said. "People don't want to do the work."

Bad weather during recent years cruelled a lot of their production - with damaging winds from tropical lows knocking back 40% of the harvest in 2013, followed by a dry spring and summer.

Similar conditions in 2009 wiped out 90% of their crop.

While the family had to borrow to survive those bad years, they also have benefited from similar disasters in north Queensland - provided they have fruit to pick at the time.

Alas, prices paid by consumers do not reflect what the grower receives.

Day-to-day operation

THE Simpsons farm their bananas sustainably, and the grove of today looks very different from that of yesteryear.

Back in the '40s, standard practice demanded bananas be grown in bare earth, with all competing vegetation sprayed to death.

But times have changed and today the Simpsons' groves are covered in lush greenery - a combination of rye grass and native vetch, which is slashed and thrown sideways into the rows of bananas as mulch.

The leaves are also cut and laid between the plants to increase organic content. The family will soon trial the use of biochar, with the help of DPI researchers, on some of its plants.

Warren explains that fertiliser spread on the bananas is taken up slowly, whereas the rye and vetch absorb the NPK mix quite quickly. When slashed, those nutrients are released back into the soil so there is little loss of either soil or nutrient.

Pesticides have changed too, with the use of organophosphates ruled out to control beetle borer.

In its place, the damaging borer is spot controlled when necessary using a softer insecticide applied directly to the base of the plant.

Nematodes are not treated, but the health of the soil through mulching helps prevent this disease.

These practices help the Simpsons comply with Coles' Freshcare certificacy and will help prepare them for new environmental regulations that are in the offing.

Bagging bunches is a critical part of the operation, preventing damage by bats, wind and drought.

Slow growth equals better flavour

COMPARED to Queensland-grown bananas, plants take longer to grow (15 months compared to 12 months) and the fruit takes nearly twice as long to mature (16 to 20 weeks from the time of flowering, compared to eight weeks in Queensland).

Of course colder seasons, like this one, slows growth.

But the Simpsons reckon slow growth creates better flavour. In fact, a recent visit to Ballina by the Better Homes and Gardens television show found the flavour of Uralba Valley Bananas superb compared to fruit from other locations.

Once picked they are stored in cool rooms, which gobble $3000 worth of electricity each quarter. Before delivery, the bananas spend five to six nights in a ripening room, where the effects of ethylene gas turns the skins yellow and softens fruit. The time in the ripening room depends on sap flow in the plant, humidity in the air, even the cycle of the moon.

Topics:  bananas farming rural rural weekly

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