Reportage

Into the second generation

BANANA PLANTS GROW like people. A white banana corm planted beneath the soil can give life to endless generations of banana plants. The corm sprouts into a pseudostem, a stem composed of leaf sheaths. A flower stalk grows from the top of the corm up through the stem to eventually break through the plant's top leaves and grow into a banana bunch. Simultaneously the corm grows another pseudostem, a sucker stem, and when it's mature, the corm sprouts another pseudostem sucker. When I was a child, Grandfather explained to me that "you see grandma, you see daughter and you see granddaughter, moving up the hill ... they're a generation, once you cut that bunch, grandma dies and the next generation begins".

Grandfather was thinking of his next generation when he bought land in the Nambucca Valley and planted his first banana corm in 1959. He'd planned for the banana plantation to be a family business, for him, his sons and their sons. He worked hard to establish his reputation as a producer of premium bananas and, with the help of Grannie and Dad, he succeeded. At the local shows' agricultural competitions they won "champion case of bananas" twelve times, "king banana" six times, best "banana hand" four times, best "carton of bananas" two times and "most successful exhibitor" three times. Grannie holds the record for packing the best case of bananas. "It got the most points that's ever been given at the Macksville Show. I think it scored 98 points," Grandfather says.

 

BUT THE FUTURE of the banana plantation for the next generation would depend upon more than the quality of the bananas. Industry politics entered the plantation. Grandfather fought them from the Banana Growers Federation's (BGF) boardroom by creating a clearance scheme and initiating export-market research.

In the early 1970s, the Sydney and Melbourne markets had a banana glut. To counteract this problem the BGF implemented a clearance scheme.

When Grandfather and Dad delivered their bananas to the Macksville BGF depot, their docket book had an algorism in the margin. The total number of cartons and boxes that were to be sent to market was divided and subtracted by a third.

"How's it going?" Grandfather asked.

"Not bad. A couple of growers have been puttin' seconds in and they all have a whinge, but on the whole, not bad," the depot boss said.

"What's the use of sending all the bananas grown to market in a glut time? You get nothin' for them."

Dad and the boss nodded.

"Righto," the boss yelled. Two young men emerged from the shed holding a long knife. "Twenty-six cartons, thirteen boxes, boys."

The men walked around the truck slicing bananas through the cardboard cartons' oval holes and the wooden boxes' slits.

"You'd better check 'em, boss, I don't want special treatment," Grandfather said.

The boss opened at random some of the sliced bananas' cartons' lids, checking for second-grade bananas and shredded newspaper hidden beneath the bananas.

"To go?" the boss asked.

Grandfather and Dad nodded.

"The cows certainly appreciate the clearance scheme," Dad said, trying to laugh. He added up the time spent fertilising, propping, bagging, cutting and packing the cows' dinner. If all the New South Wales banana growers were honest, a third could just be left to rot in the plantation.

Grandfather and Dad helped unload the cartons and boxes into a railway container. A ute pulled up; its door slammed and a banana grower approached Grandfather.

"When are you and the other bigwigs gunna get rid of this clearance scheme?"

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Grandfather shrugged his shoulders. "If I were a fortune teller I wouldn't be here, I'd be doin' the show circuit and reading people's palms." Grandfather's years on the BGF had taught him to combat anger with humour whenever possible.

"No doubt when all the little growers like me are washed up ... It's survival of the fittest."

"But nobody's fit enough. None of us can go forever on no money. The idea of keeping a third back and only sending what can sell is a much better idea." Grandfather always said that disgruntled growers didn't bother him, but deep in his corm I know they did.

There was also a clearance scheme at the Sydney and Melbourne markets. At the end of each week, the old, stale bananas were given to pig farmers so that they wouldn't compete with the new bananas and reduce their price.

In 1980, when the market competition worsened because of North Queensland's banana production, Grandfather and other BGF board members travelled abroad seeking an export market. The United Arab Emirates and Greece were the only possibilities as their import tariffs didn't eliminate all the profit. In Saudi Arabia "we were too successful", Grandfather says. "When we got home they gave us an order for 250,000 tonnes or something and we couldn't supply it ... Greece was ruled out as it was an opportunist market, their demand for New South Wales bananas wasn't reliable."

Grandfather's battle to save New South Wales' bananas from industry politics failed. However, his dream of his banana plantation being a family business for his sons and their sons continues as surely as the banana plant sprouts a new pseudostem sucker.

 

IN 1997, AN unlikely stranger stopped at grandfather's roadside fruit stall. "Do you sell banana leaves?" The tall, dark-skinned figure asked. Grandfather looked him up and down, trying to figure out his nationality.

"I'm Albert," he said and extended his hand.

Grandfather had been approached by women wanting dead banana leaves for raffia weaving and their deleafing dead leaves from stools had helped when desuckering. "You have to cut them yourself and not take the dead ones from the ground, they're mulch."

"No, no, I want living leaves."

Grandfather was dumbfounded. Albert explained that he supplied banana leaves to a Chinese man in Sydney who used them to wrap around rice and meat in his factory. Being a Pauline Hanson supporter, Grandfather didn't want to change from supplying Australia's biggest fruit seller to supplying foliage for Asian cuisine.

"I'm old," Grandfather said. "I won't sell you leaves."

Albert selected a hand of bananas, paid for them and walked to his van. Grandfather looked over his shoulder at Dad's banana patch that lined the gully. His disinterest showed; few stools were propped and bagged and pseudostem suckers crowded the ground.

"You could always go down the packing shed and chat with my son."

Dad couldn't have known that the foreigner who entered the packing shed would be his plantation's salvation but, as farming is already the biggest gamble, he agreed to sell Albert leaves. After living in the shadow of Coffs Harbour's "Big Banana", Dad developed a new way of thinking about the plant he'd farmed his whole life. Today he no longer grows bananas for their fruit; he grows them only for their leaves. As if this idea wasn't alien enough, Albert later showed him how to sell banana bells, the part of the plant that hangs beneath the banana bunch like a gong.

But just as when a new knowledge economy surpasses an old, family politics inevitably emerge. The traditional farming practices Grandfather taught Dad are being abandoned. Grandfather desuckers and Dad doesn't. After sharpening his desuckering spade with an angle grinder, Grandfather goes desuckering. He removes the unwanted pseudostem suckers and the suckers' eyes, circular growing points, from the base of every stool. To completely desucker his patch takes all year. In the summer and autumn months, he keeps a can of Mortein down his overalls as wasps swarm and attack.

Now that Dad's selling banana leaves, he doesn't desucker and his spade is rusting. In his patch, the pseudostem suckers grow to produce more leaves.

Grandfather bags his bunches and Dad doesn't. Grandfather ties his leather carpenter's pouch full of pest strips and nails around his waist, grabs blue and silver recycled banana bags, a ladder, and goes bagging. A bunch needs to be propped before it's bagged so that strong wind won't blow the stool over. He picks up a wooden prop from the ground and looks at its square u-shaped wire. He remembers how proud he and Dad were when inventing this new propping wire. It kept their stools up in strong wind when all the other stools in the valley fell. He props the stool's bunch, climbs up the ladder to cover the bunch with a bag and nails a square pest strip into its stem. He completes a row and looks back, admiring how professional the plants look when they've got their ties on.

Now that Dad's selling banana leaves, he doesn't go bagging and his carpenter's pouch is a habitat for spiders. Instead he debunches and removes the flower stalk from the top of the plant before it grows into a banana bunch, so that the plant will use all its nutrients to produce leaves.

Perhaps the greatest farming practice change is the banana plants themselves. Grandfather prized Cavendish bananas and they have presided in the farm since 1959. But now that Dad's selling banana leaves, he's gradually replacing all his Cavendish bananas with Ladyfinger bananas and Black Ducasse bananas. Their banana leaves are preferred by his Chinese buyer in Sydney because they are soft, easy to wrap around rice and meat and they don't discolour when steamed. The Black Ducasse bananas also produce the banana bell Asian buyers desire as an ingredient for seafood stir-fry.

The traditional packing-shed practices Grandfather taught Dad are also being abandoned. Grandfather lifts the heavy banana bunches from the truck to the bench to dehand, cutting the bananas from the stem. The hands are washed in a bathtub of fungicide and then packed in cardboard cartons he's folded and stapled with a large, foot-operated staple gun.

Now that Dad's selling banana leaves, he doesn't have a large amount of packing work. He lifts leaves from the truck to the bench where Albert cuts the leaf from its stem for Dad to pile, roll into bundles and tie with string.

It is a bitter irony that to save the banana plantation for his next generation, Grandfather has had to accept the passing away of all that he's known and done. It is by abandoning traditional banana-farming practices that Dad's able to make the plantation economically viable. "When I was doing the fruit, there was very high input costs ... I had to buy cartons which were close to $2 each, plus you had the cost of freight all the way to Melbourne, plus you had the costs of bags, the cost of props." Dad says: "I think I can grow leaves on a per hectare basis for maybe about a third of the cost of growing bananas bunches, but on the other side of the ledger, you're probably getting back less per hectare for leaves."

Even the place in the packing shed where Grandfather is said to reign has changed. At smoko time, the jar of Arnotts biscuits is pushed aside to make room for Albert's exotic dishes: fried cabbage, curried potato with lentils and on special occasions, butter chicken curry. On Dad's birthday, Albert brought four big pots full of butter chicken curry and rice. At no time is their cuisine more threatening than when Ananda, Albert's casual worker, is at the smoko table. With every mouthful of food, Ananda bites a red birdseye chilli. "Everything has got to be hot for Andy, it's just a cultural thing, it's the way he is ... I've always believed that diversity is a good thing in life, different types of music, different types of food, makes a more interesting world," Dad says. But Grandfather is happy with his usual corned beef sandwiches. When offered half Grandfather's sandwich, Albert declines.

"A cow is a sacred animal. I drink its milk like I did my mother's. I also don't eat pork as pig is a dirty animal," Albert says.

"What do you know," Dad says, eager to share common ground. "Me and Dad don't either, we're Seventh-Day Adventists."

"I reckon, if ya get a Holden they give ya a book to tell ya what oil to put in it," Grandfather says. "Well, God did the same thing. Leviticus chapter 11 in the Bible has all the things you can eat and all the things you can't."

Like the food, conversation has never been more diverse. Albert shares many stories about Fiji, justifying Grandfather's stance to never holiday (the United Arab Emirates trip was strictly business) away from "the lucky country". Albert "told us a lot about the culture in Fiji. At present, there's been a bit of an upset in Fiji where the local Fijians want to hunt the other people out ... and if they're successful and get rid of all the Indians and all those who have been working hard, I think the place will slip," Grandfather says.

While the banana plantation hasn't moved up the hill in the direction Grandfather anticipated when planting his first banana corm, he's learning to be pleasantly surprised. If the corm's first pseudostem had a flower and grew a banana bunch to take care of his family, and the corm's second pseudostem sucker grew banana leaves to take care of his son's family, he enjoys pondering what the corm's third pseudostem sucker will produce to take care of his family's next generation when he's gone.

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