Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where PACIFIC COAST ECO BANANAS, Innisfail, QUEENSLAND
Several years ago, when I first began researching the source of my food, I was shocked to discover how bananas are grown. I had mistakenly assumed that, having such a thick skins, bananas would be reasonably protected from any chemical sprays (something I now know to be a ridiculous assumption about any produce).
Sadly, this iconic Australian fruit, a staple in most households, is plagued by the dreaded scab moth and rust thrip which can extensively damage crops. In order to protect the fruit, most farmers inject a potent insecticide directly into the bell as each bunch is growing. I found this incredibly disturbing – bananas were an almost daily snack for my two young children.
For about a year I avoided the fruit altogether until a friend put me onto the red-tipped bananas grown by Frank and Dianne Sciacca at Pacific Coast Eco Bananas.
While many people will have seen them in their local grocery store, very few understand the significance of the distinctive red-tipped banana. Like most bananas, they’re grown in Tropical North Queensland, but that’s where the similarities end - because these bananas are most definitely not like the others.
Last year we spent the day with Frank and Dianne, discussing the challenges of the industry. It was a day of conflicting emotions. Our conversations made us despair for the future one moment and soar with hope another. ‘Passionate’ and ‘unwavering’ are words that seem far too weak to describe this farming duo, we need to invent a whole new word. Which I suppose isn’t all that surprising, since that’s precisely what Frank and Dianne did when they coined their unique ‘Ecoganic’ term.
At 28 years old Frank’s father had helped him put together a deposit and he purchased and worked his own cane farm for about five years.
‘Soon after we were married cane farming entered a stage where, like a lot of farming industries, you just couldn’t survive off a few acres anymore,’ says Dianne. ‘The only option was to get bigger and throw more fertiliser and chemicals at everything. But Frank felt there was something really wrong with that.’
‘He recognised very early on that agriculture was all about intensity. The ground, your soil, your environment is meant to produce X. The moment you start trying to push past those boundaries and you start feeding more for more density, you start having health problems – pests and disease. You need to stay within the limits of what that area and that environment can grow.’
In 1990, rather than buying more farm land, Frank decided to completely change direction. With the help of one of his nephews, he set about planting several hundred thousand banana plants, all by hand.
However, by 1998 Frank could see the same production problems he experienced in cane farming starting to emerge in his banana production system. Driven by his passion for caring for the earth, he began analysing numerous styles of sustainable farming practices.
The couple employed a private entomologist to work alongside them for several years, helping Frank to understand the interaction between insects, grasses, weeds and what was happening beneath the ground.
‘We learnt that it was all about getting everything back in the environment so that you could have a balanced, complex ecosystem.’
After decades of working with nature rather than against it, the couple have completely revitalised their property.
‘We had about one or two species of wasp on the farm when we first started, now we have about eight,’ says Dianne.
In considering how to label their product, the couple looked at organics and other systems that were being used globally but just didn’t feel they were the right fit.
‘It would have been very quick and easy for us to enter the market as “organic”, but we wanted to create a more innovative, creature-friendly approach to farming,' says Frank.
‘Organic farming is all about non-use of any synthetic products, but they still need to compete in the market place and to do that they need to build yield. So they’ve manipulated the program to be able to deliver the same outcome as conventional by bringing out an organic insecticide, an organic miticide, and other “organic” solutions so that they can still tick those boxes. But putting “organic” on a label doesn’t automatically make it good. Some of these products may be all natural, but they can be highly toxic and even carcinogenic.’
‘It shows what we’ve known for a long time. If you allow the market place to dictate what you do on your farm, to compromise the delicate balance of your ecosystem, then you really haven’t achieved anything.’
The couple set about developing a framework, and a third-party auditable system that was credible. The term ‘Ecoganic’ stemmed from Frank’s belief that there were organic products being used that were just fitting a human philosophy, rather than looking at the environment.
The red tips on the bananas, a food grade wax that breaks down at the same rate as leaf litter, came from Frank’s desire to make his produce to look different from everyone else’s.
‘I wanted it to stand out and I wanted people to ask questions. A sticker wouldn’t have done that,’ says Frank.
‘Initially I dipped them in paint and I put them on the shelf and said to Dianne – “that’s what I want our bananas to look like”. And Dianne looked at me and said “you’re mad!”,' laughs Frank. 'We continued looking for alternatives and eventually came up with a cheese-grade wax, and it all went from there.’
The red tipped banana was the first colour trademark to fresh food in the world.
‘Lots of people have seen the red tipped bananas, and they might know it’s a superior product, but they’re not really sure why. They know that there’s organic mixed into it but they really don’t know any more than that.’
‘In a nutshell, we grow our bananas the way they were grown 60 or 70 years ago before the big chemical companies changed the face of farming,’ says Frank.
Traditional farming practices involve using chemicals that sterilize the soil, which has a negative impact on the organisms, insects, birds, larger wildlife and waterways. The Ecoganic farming system means Frank and Dianne farm in harmony with nature. Rather than relying on chemicals (either synthetic or organic), they choose to employ all of nature’s creatures, big and small, on the farm to grow their bananas slowly and sustainably.
‘You need know what beetle or ant is specific to your region – and all the way up the food chain from smaller animals to bigger animals, they all interlink, they are all connected with one another. You need to know what plants grow naturally at different times of the year, what insects live off those plants, and what time of the year they complete their life cycles.
‘For instance, I know that the blue shield beetle, he will arrive on my farm at the end of August. In September and October, he will peak. He’ll still be there a bit later in November and December but during that period in Springtime, I expect to see lots and lots of those. They eat the red spider mite which is a threat to my plants. I don’t use any miticides, synthetic or organic, so I need to know that I have the perfect habitat for the blue shield beetle to come and lay their eggs and complete their life cycle. I need to know which weeds or grasses they like. You need to be constantly working to build and support that ecosystem.’
There are currently four banana farms and two papaya growers, as well as an avocado grower and a cattle farmer ‘in conversion’ using Frank and Dianne’s Ecoganic certification.
‘People come to us asking for that certification. We can help a conventional farmer, who is using every chemical tool in the toolbox, and we can teach him and take him through a process where over a number of years we develop his ecosystems, and his reliance on those farm products become less and less until he’s no longer reliant on any of them. We’ve seen some amazing transformations.’
Frank maintains that, contrary to popular belief, there are actually enormous cost savings to farming sustainably.
‘A farmer that has scab moth problems, for instance, which is a big issue in the banana industry, can save a lot of money. Most banana growers have to inject the bell or flower of every single bunch that comes out of the tree with an insecticide to stop the grub from destroying that bunch. Organic banana farmers use a similar approach but with an “organic” derivative. Now that process costs the farmer about 70c a bell. And you have to inject the bell every week, 52 weeks of the year. So every week you’ve got to go up and down those rows of trees and inject every single bell to avoid big losses.’
‘We have removed the bell injecting from our system entirely by developing an ecosystem that prevents us from having a scab moth issue. So that’s a cost saving of roughly $60 thousand dollars in our production system. Isn’t that amazing? It’s not about injecting with an organic product, it’s about developing a system where you’re not reliant and you don’t need to do it at all!’
While Frank admits that it requires a lot more brain power and a great deal of of hard work, it’s well worth farming this way.
‘Sadly, farming these days is all about conforming – people want to be able to tell the food what it’s going to look like and what it’s going to taste like, because the dollar dictates how it’s going to be. Your bananas must be this long, this big, this yellow, without a blemish because that’s what the consumer wants. No-one gives a shit that in 20 or 30 years this area will have such a big imbalance that the Great Barrier Reef won’t exist anymore and all the waterways will be heavily polluted.’
‘Somebody’s got to stand up and say “Nope, I ain’t doing it that way. I don’t agree with what you’re doing, and I’m going to challenge you”, no matter what it costs me,’ says Frank.
‘And trust me, the challenges are out there and they will throw everything at you. We’re constantly battling, all the time. Small mindedness, greed, and the almighty dollar. And it’s not just about growing bananas, it’s a battle we all face as humans. Because in front of us we have to make a pretty simple decision – do we want a healthy earth to live in or do we want money? Do we really feel that it’s up to our future generations to try and fix what we’ve done to this planet?’
‘Just look at the amount of waste in our industry. Our industry grows something like 24 million cartons of bananas and before we even send that amount to market, we would throw a third of that away. So the volume of 8 million cartons is getting thrown away before anything gets sent off. Of what’s left, the market place only demands about 75% of that. So over half of what we grow now we don’t even need.’
Frank and Dianne have conducted a lot of research over the years looking at people’s intentions of buying environmental food.
‘The biggest thing that kept coming back was people complaining that food had no taste. That dissatisfaction was there 110% with anyone over the age of 40. Sadly, the younger generations don’t know any better, they don’t know what bananas, tomatoes, apples or carrots used to taste like. We’re constantly told that our bananas taste the way bananas used to taste,’ says Dianne.
‘The other thing that grabbed our attention was the number of people telling us that they couldn’t tolerate other bananas but they could eat ours. They were asking us why but for a long time we had no idea, other than the fact that our bananas were created by the ecosystem itself, not force grown.’
‘Then one year Frank had a nurse from a Sydney hospital tell him that they bought the red tipped bananas for their palliative care patients because they could digest them better. That really made us want to find out what the heck was going on. We called the cancer foundation, and CSIRO, and they put us in touch with someone that could do the research for us. CSIRO in Adelaide went and bought a box of red tipped bananas and a box of ordinary bananas and did some work. It was done on a human digester, and it showed that our bananas in a green state were digestible by the gut, whereas the commercially grown banana needed to be almost overripe to be at the same stage of digestion. So we’re not talking about nutritional content, we’re talking about digestibility by the gut.’
‘Now, we can’t take that to market because it’s not been done on humans. In order to do that we’d have to replicate that on humans which would likely cost us over $100k. But the work that we did in that human digester, at least gave us some answers. A commercial banana could have the same amount of nutrition in it as ours, but the ability of the gut to digest and absorb that nutrition is the issue. That answered a lot of questions for us.’
‘It’s as simple as this,’ explains Frank, ‘bananas, at a stage three of ripeness, the fructose, sucrose and glucose levels (which is the sugars), have to reach a certain level so that your digestive system is able to cope and extract the nutrients. So what happens in a high production system where they need to grow fast and it’s all about yield, is they put in lots of nitrogen. They focus on getting rid of that bunch or that yield or that plant and growing the next one, so they can shorten the process. So they put lots of fertiliser and water on them to make them grow faster, and they harvest them before they’re actually mature – so the starches inside haven’t reached their full potential. So people are mostly eating resistant starches and can’t absorb the full nutrients because the fruit hasn’t been allowed to mature properly.’
‘So what you really need to be asking when you make your food choices is, has this been grown under a low stress farming system?’
Frank and Dianne have been selling to the produce markets since 2001, and to Woolworths and Coles since around 2005.
‘I think it was the direction the supermarkets wanted to go in and we ticked all the boxes for them, particularly that we had the cheapest form of identification to a product or packaging that was in the marketplace. That’s a big thing for the chain stores – how do you get a banana through the check-out and identify that it’s different to the other offering so that people can’t try and pass it off as the cheaper option? So I guess we addressed part of that challenge for the supermarkets.’
‘It’s been a difficult journey; as fresh produce operates in a very elastic market with return prices being below cost of production most of the time. We knew if we were going to survive we needed to achieve a price to cover our cost of production. We had to stay firm with asking for a minimum sustainable price. Our interest was always in the outcome for the growers, the environmental health of the farm and the region, rather than supermarket profit.’
‘It’s cost us dearly, but the one good thing that we were able to do was bypass the wholesaler and go direct to the consumer, so we are able to build a relationship direct with our consumers. It’s meant that we have to pay for our own system, but that is what allows us to achieve an outcome that isn’t owned by somebody else. We can make sure that the growers that are doing the work are rewarded.’
‘In agriculture, if you supply the big supermarkets you have to comply with their quality standards. You become governed by them. And then as a farmer all you really have is a job. This is compounded by an oversupply of industrial grown food that has to be sold, and being 80% of the market they have the last say in what they’re going to pay you, regardless of what it’s costing you to grow your product, or the time you spend working on it.’
‘To have individual products, to have our own identification, I think is extremely important, But this is not something the supermarkets support.’
‘Everyone sees red tip bananas on the shelf at the supermarket and sees the price and thinks – wow, those guys must be making a squillion dollars! But that’s not the case at all. We charge a royalty to our growers, which covers marketing, research and development, legal and administration, because we sell on behalf of the group. And we have staff wages. We earn enough money to live, and we live a simple life. I don’t have to worry about not being able to afford groceries, and I feel blessed that I don’t have to do that,’ says Dianne.
So what changes do the couple see going forward?
‘We’re actually putting carbon back into the soil, and there are very few people doing that. And the fact that we’re constantly increasing that suggests that the system is working really well. The rest (industrial production) of the banana industry is going in reverse – they’re harvesting their natural capital to go to the marketplace. The consumer doesn’t understand, doesn’t know what’s going on. To them, it’s just a banana,’ says Frank.
I’m farming bananas but I’m also farming carbon. And I think that’s exciting because the fact is that airline companies and others that need carbon credits could use/align with farmers like me that are putting carbon back into the soil. Previously there was no monetary value being put on that. So when I look at my business, my business is not just doing red tipped bananas, my business is putting carbon back into the soil, and I will hopefully get a reward for that one day. And the value that I hold now on my biodiversity is enormous because that as a business is really awesome. So I’m putting value back to my natural capital, whereas before, no one gave a shit about your natural capital. So as a business in the future, who’s going to be more sustainable?
Frank and Dianne have two daughters – Alana, who currently works in the business, and Alex, who is working overseas. ‘I imagine that both will be in the business at some stage,’ says Frank. ‘You need young blood and young minds. I think Dianne and I have taken the business almost as far as we can and it needs a younger, fresher view to take it to a whole different level.’
‘The more we learn, the more we realise that we know nothing when it comes to nature. And I mean that sincerely. Because every time we get to a stage where we start to get a bit confident and think we’ve got it down pat, that’s when we discover something completely new and we realise that we haven’t even got to the tip of the iceberg yet!’
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