The decline of the big banana – Part 2

The story of Bill O’Donnell – Part 2

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 5.2.11

In the second of a three-part interview, veteran Coffs Coast fruit grower Bill O’Donnell talks about his peach and nectarine orchards, and how his lifeline to farm-based economic viability was ultimately ended by the inflexible application of regulations.

Bill left banana growing in the early 1970s and took himself off travelling for some years. He also kept up his passion for fun-running, and even the occasional marathon – hence the nick-name, ‘Runner Bill’.

On his return to Australia and the Coffs Coast, he took up professional book-making, which he continued, fairly successfully, for the next two decades. Bill wanted to go back to fruit growing, because, as he puts it, he had ‘too much physical energy’.

He purchased a badly run-down 200-acre dairy property a few kilometres from the Bundagen multiple occupancy community. He spent the first few years cleaning up the farm, and then he had to make it pay, because the book-making started to go bad – ‘the crowds weren’t going to the races any more’.

Bill tells how he made ‘a couple of false starts’:

“I put in an orchard of oranges, which was alright, insofar as you could grow lovely oranges, but you couldn’t sell them. I had the first lychee plantation in the district, but that got wrecked in a gale – so I gave that away, and anyway I had the wrong variety.”

It was the local rep from the Golden Dawn agent who then advised him to go for tropical peaches and nectarines, early fruiting varieties. Bill put in 2800 trees – 1800 peaches and 1000 nectarines – in 1986, and they began fruiting two years later. But he was caught unawares by a ‘real stinker of a problem – the [fruit] bats’:

“.. I could sit at my place, and it was like watching the Luftwaffe coming over in the Battle of Britain. The first three or four would come, and then three or four hundred, and… then 30 and 40 thousand. You couldn’t sleep at night. And they broke the trees down… they’d just get so full of peaches and nectarines, and they were that heavy, and [the bats would] just break the branches down. It was just a complete disaster – I spent maybe $70-$80,000, looking to get a return, and I just lost it all. Never got a quid… There were peach seeds on the highway, from the Sawtell turnoff to the Bellingen turnoff – it was awful, a horrible experience.”

Not a man to be deterred, Bill committed himself much more deeply to his new orchard:

“So I had to net them. We had to trim all the broken branches, and it cost $90,000 to net the place. This was before I got any return. It took me a long while to get over that – that was when we were paying 16-17% interest. And I had to do it in one hit, if I wanted to survive, I had to protect the trees. It was crippling. But we overcame it…”

The trees recovered quickly, and Bill harvested a good crop the next year, which he sold through Paul Bayliss at Golden Dawn, of whom he speaks very highly. When Paul left, Bill sent his fruit to Melbourne through a ‘terrific little Italian bloke’ that Paul recommended.

And for a while all was good – but then Bill found that while his costs – wages, freight, packing – were rising, the price wasn’t. Why? “Because the supermarkets [have] conditioned the people to pay bugger all for their fruit.

So at that point the ‘only solution for me was to go local, with the roadside stall in Bonville [8 weeks a year], and the Sunday markets, and that kept the show going.’ Bill’s roadside stall out of the Bonville caravan park was highly successful, and extremely popular.

The stall lasted 14 years, but ultimately its success was its undoing, as other fruit vendors complained to the council that Bill’s stall was a ‘traffic hazard’. The first council officer to investigate the complaints took a reasonably relaxed approach, but in the last couple of years another officer took a very hard-line approach, and Bill was forced to close the stall.

And the trees? All bulldozed, and the netting’s gone too.

Bill O'Donnell in the field where his peach and nectarine orchard used to be
Bill O’Donnell in the field where his peach and nectarine orchard used to be