The Story of Bill O’Donnell, Part 1
This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 22.1.11
In a career spanning more than 50 years, Bill O’Donnell has been a banana grower, a tropical peach, nectarine and Japanese persimmon grower, as well as a bookmaker and professional punter. In the first of a three-part interview, Bill talks about his involvement in the banana industry in the Coffs Coast, and some of the reasons why it declined.
Bill O’Donnell comes from one of the original banana families of the Coffs Coast. His family moved to Woolgoolga from Sydney in 1930 and his father began growing bananas in 1931. Bananas were so central to the regional economy in the decades immediately prior to and after the Second World War, Bill says, that the first Australian post-war census (1952) revealed that ‘Woolgoolga had the highest per capita income of any town in the country – out of bananas, it was all bananas.’
Bill’s father bought, sold and worked a number of small banana plantations, around 10-20 acres in size. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Bill says, ‘bananas were perfectly adequate to make a living’. Bill’s family always sent their produce to the Melbourne markets. In those days, Bill says,
‘the bigger agents always had a local representative…he’d tell you whether there was going to be an expected higher volume over the next few months, and what the price would be. They really had their finger on the pulse, it was a very good service. The price was always fair.’
When he left school in 1956, Bill joined the ‘family firm’. Those first few years were the peak of the industry in NSW, when, Bill remembers, there were ’31,000 acres of bananas in NSW’, and the state produced around 80% of Australia’s supply. Now the industry here has dwindled to a few thousand acres, with Queensland now producing three-quarters of Australia’s bananas.
It was however during the years of greatest glory for bananas in our region that the seeds of destruction were sown in oversupply. There was a ‘bad glut in 1959’, Bill recalls. ‘Everyone wanted to grow bananas, just too many came onto the market – and that caused a lot of angst. That was the first big shake the bananas had since the end of the Second World War. We had fifteen years or plenty, and then it became a bit of a roller coaster ride. And from the 1980s on, it just became steadily worse and worse and worse.’
Bill recalls that the Queensland industry was really begun by Italian growers from Coffs Harbour. In Coffs their properties were right in town, and due to the demands of urban development, they were under pressure to sell. So they did, and with the cash, ‘they went up to Ingham and Tully, and bought big farms, for next to nothing. And with modern transport, they revolutionised the industry. Just gradually, everything started to fizzle out around here – it’s hard to believe…’.
Bill himself left the industry in 1972, but his father stayed on till he turned 81, in 1981. It was hard going, and Bill says that in the last 10 years his dad ‘barely left the shed.’
The huge volume coming from Queensland – ‘some growers will grow half a million trays a year’ – combined with the buying power of the big supermarkets, has meant that the price for growers is ‘disastrous now, relative to the cost of living… The only thing that keeps the local industry going [now] is the odd cyclone in Queensland. The locals get a go on, for about two years, and then they have five bad years, and half of them disappear in that time.’
As for flavour, Bill is scathing about the produce north of the border:
‘[The supermarkets want] to buy volume, they want every banana looking the same. Bugger the people, whether they’ve got any flavour – the Queensland bananas are like eating rubber, no flavour, too big to eat. They’d sell twice as many bananas if they scrubbed the Queensland industry and re-started the NSW industry. You’d get a nice banana, six-8 inches long, which is just a nice meal.’
Meanwhile, the local banana industry keeps dwindling by about 5% per annum, according to Coffs Council.