Unity is power

Bananas in Coffs Harbour – will the Big Banana be all that we have left?

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 2.4.11

Bananas have left their mark on Coffs Harbour. Our local credit union, the BCU, was established by banana growers in 1970, by members of the Banana Growers Federation who, according to the BCU website, ‘found it difficult to get finance through the banks of the day [so] they pooled resources, and formed a credit union, locals helping locals’.

Forty-six years ago, the Big Banana was inaugurated as one of the first of Australia’s ‘Big Things’ attractions. The very first, according to Wikipedia, was the Big Scotsman in Medindie, Adelaide, built in 1963.

Isn’t Wikipedia a goldmine of information? A wonderful modern resource at our fingertips, perfect for finding out all the facts about obscure and not-so-obscure people, phenomena and places. But beware: you can’t always trust everything you read in Wikipedia.

Take its entry for Coffs Harbour, for example. It says that the town ‘is the hub for a thriving banana industry’. The page was last modified on 16 March, 2011.  Whoever the contributors are to that page, they obviously haven’t spent much time – or any time – talking to a local banana grower, or looking at what’s been happening to the industry.

Coffs Harbour was the hub for a thriving banana industry – several decades ago. Today it’s the hub for what some are saying is an industry in terminal decline.  South Boambee grower Ted Knoblock, with over 30 years’ of experience in the local industry, is phasing out the last half dozen acres on his family property, because, despite Cyclone Yasi, ‘the long term future for bananas here is zero now’.

Ted acknowledges the role played by the mega-production in North Queensland in the local industry’s decline, but he also says that the local growers have to shoulder some of the responsibility for their current predicament:

“[The decline is] not all do with North Queensland, it’s to do with the incompetence of growers here who just won’t move on. They won’t use new ideas, and new ways of marketing. They want to be individual, but unity is power – and they won’t accept that, so they get stung every time in the markets.”

Unity is power – the phrase that echoes down the centuries, and is still rich with meaning today. For the alienated youth and workers of the Middle East, it means millions of people in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus and Sana’a, bravely staring down the guns and tanks of repressive dictators. For fruit growers on the Coffs Coast, it means organising into cooperatives, agreeing a single marketing strategy and sticking to it, so you can be price makers, not price takers.

That was the role played for 71 years by the Banana Growers Federation. At the time of its winding up, seven years ago almost to the day, long-time Woolgoolga grower Jim Limbert said that ‘without the BGF, the banana industry in NSW could not have prospered…The BGF was essential for the establishment of the industry in this state’.

There was no more powerful symbol of the decline of the banana industry than the decision by the-then remaining 428 members of the cooperative – down from 30,000 in the early 1970s – to wind it up in 2004. As to what’s replaced it, Ted Knoblock says that:

“We’ve got a marketing group at the moment – but one’s dropped out, and a couple don’t have any bananas. We’re not big enough to have any effect… If Yasi hadn’t come along, the industry would have been dead by the end of March this year. It’s that bad, nobody can afford to put fertiliser on ‘em…We used to put up to 800 cartons a week out of here – now we’re struggling to do 80…its uneconomic to irrigate them, with the high price of power.”

Can anything rescue an iconic industry that appears to be one step away from the grave? Ted reckons that a fair price for the grower might – if it was achievable:

“You’d need $16 a carton to make it viable, with the consumer paying $2.50 a kilo. Which is no different to what they’re paying now. But somebody in the middle’s getting a lot of it.

2 thoughts on “Unity is power”

  1. There are many ways through this situation, but a viable, productive solution may not give an immediate return. A similar value decline in bananas led to many South American farmers transitioning to organic bananas and more diverse agroforestry systems (food and forest plants combined to benefit each other) in the early 2000’s. Now, the eastern coastal states of Brazil (similar to Coffs to Murwillumbah range) have diverse farmers’ cooperatives that produce various locally certified organic (agro-ecological) seasonal fruits all year round, along with their fresh bananas, dried bananas and jams etc. Sure, labour is cheaper, production costs are minimal, but the production system has become secure, much more productive and nutritional. They do not need vast amounts of toxic fertilisers for high yields, simply use rock dusts and compost teas. People in Australia buy bananas according to taste, I cannot find the tasty bananas we once ate decades ago. Sweetening your soil with minerals may produce a tastier, healthier and more marketable banana! Fewer wise inputs are the key to the turnaround

    1. Thanks for that excellent comment seedwalkabout – do you mind if I follow up via email – I would quite like to feature your perspective and knowledge in a future column for the Coffs Advocate, if you’re OK with that?

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