The decline of the big banana – Part 3

The story of Bill O’Donnell – Part 3

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 5.3.11

Bill O'Donnell's property today, near Bundagen, Coffs Coast, NSW
Bill O’Donnell’s property today, near Bundagen, Coffs Coast, NSW

In the last of a three-part interview, veteran Coffs Coast fruit grower Bill O’Donnell shares his reflections on the future of agriculture in the region

Bill has spent a lifetime growing fruit in the region – first bananas, then tropical peaches and nectarines – and he has seen the changes ringing over the last 50 years. Unfortunately, they’ve all tended to be in one direction, and it hasn’t been favourable to the growers of the Coffs Coast.

We’ve already talked about the deep crisis in the local banana industry. The massive Queensland industry and the uniformity in appearance demanded by the supermarkets quite simply means that – in current market conditions, cyclones aside – it’s uneconomic to grow bananas on a commercial basis in our region. The industry is literally in its death throes.

The relatively high cost of labour is a major impediment to viability. As Bill says, bananas are physical work in this region, where the plantations are on slopes, compared to the heavily mechanised Queensland industry.

“When I was involved”, he says, “we could afford to hire workers and pay ourselves a fair wage, because we were getting a decent price from the wholesalers. These days you just could not afford to do that, because the price hasn’t gone up while the costs have. I heard the other week that they were getting $8 a box. I can remember in the mid-1950s we were getting 8 pound a box – that’s $16, and the wages were 5 pound a week. You only needed one case of bananas a week to pay the wages. And in those days we might do 100 cases of bananas a week.”

How times have changed.

Cost-price squeezes also turned Bill away from the central markets with his tropical peaches and nectarines.

He believes that if they wanted, the supermarkets could set a minimum floor price at a level which would keep fruit growing viable. ‘But they won’t’, Bill says. ‘They’re chasing the farmers out of it. They really are.’

Another serious problem in Bill’s view is the death of publicly-funded experimental farms, which used to import and test the new varieties, and share the knowledge with the growers. Now it’s all privatized, says Bill, with the supermarkets buying up all the plant variety rights and licensing them to selected growers only.

‘It’s a nasty one, that’, says Bill, ‘I don’t care what anybody says. Those PVR rights, that’s where they squeeze the little bloke out, because you just cannot get the raw material. They will say, we don’t buy that variety.’

Increasing costs, low farm-gate prices, low bargaining power, lack of public investment – these are all serious challenges for agriculture in the region – and the country as a whole.

Blueberries are doing alright, says Bill, ‘for now’; but he puts at least some of that down to the cheap labour that a genuine family farm operation enables. ‘But you can see the writing on the wall with them’, he adds, because you can grow them from Atherton right down – so there’ll be an oversupply. They’re having prosperous days at present, but it’ll be like the bananas in ’59.’

The result is that agriculture is an aging industry, ‘and that’s a real problem for the country’, says Bill. The only real key to it I think is the local markets. You’ve got to be able to sell locally, because the grower has to be able to get a retail price…the killer for the retailer is the rent. In the old days, shopfront rents were next to nothing for greengrocers. ..Half the cost of fruit and vegetables I think is the rent that these people have got to pay. It’s just – well I think it’s criminal.’

Farmers themselves though can be their own worst enemies – in their refusal to cooperate with each other.

‘ I’ve seen them’, says Bill, ‘they had the banana growers’ federation for years – and that was one of the most successful co-ops that ever was. It was fantastic. But it took one bloke to ruin it… He worked out that he could make a dollar a case more if he took it to Adelaide – money was all it was. The answer to everything’s money, somewhere along the line. That’s how things can fall apart.’

If nothing changes, in Bill’s view, Australia will ultimately ‘depend on imported produce.’