Words and images by Vicki Ravlich-Horan
“This is my retirement fund, minus the ‘d’,” quips Hugh Rose as he shows us around his 40ha property near Parua Bay on Northland’s east coast. Hugh is the president of Tropical Fruit Growers of NZ, and here in this tropical wonderland he grows everything from lotus root to pawpaw, pineapples to sugar cane. But it is the bananas we are here to see.
Hugh has over 17 different varieties of banana growing to see which do best in the warm climate of Northland. Those that thrive are sold to both home gardeners and those setting up commercial plantations.
Hugh says bananas are one of the easiest crops in the world to grow, and New Zealand’s low disease and pest levels compared to the tropics means there is no reason we can’t have a flourishing banana industry here.
Bananas are capable of producing fruit almost constantly through the year once temperatures exceed 14°C, so areas like Northland and the Hawke’s Bay are ideal. Growers are even producing bananas in Invercargill – admittedly under tunnel shelter.
“With the number of enthusiasts we now have on board,” Hugh says, “there should be enough bananas growing for Northland to be self-sufficient in a couple of years.”
Hugh’s calculations on potential earnings would make most horticulturalists sit up and take notice. He reckons that 1,500 plants per hectare could yield at least 15,000kg of bananas a year. Even at $2/kg this would return $30,000/ha.
As a highly water-efficient, funnel-shaped plant, bananas do not require much irrigation, grow well in most soil types and tolerate many pests and diseases. And Hugh says they sit well alongside traditional pastoral activities like dairying. “Dairy effluent is high in nitrogen and phosphate, exactly what bananas love, and the plant just sucks up those nutrients, making it an ideal crop alongside a dairy operation.”
They’re also a source of cattle feed, with all the banana plant edible by stock.
New Zealanders eat a lot of bananas, almost all of them Cavendish varieties imported from mono-cultural regions of the Philippines, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama. Tropical race 4, a strain of Panama disease (which decimated the banana industry in the 1960s), is endangering the commercial production of Cavendish everywhere they are grown because of low genetic resistance.
New Zealand has an opportunity to produce a portion of supply for the local market with some alternative varieties. Lady Finger and Pacific Island varieties like Misi Luki, Goldfinger and Hua Moa have been growing in northern parts of New Zealand for decades and their fruit are smaller, denser and generally sweeter than the imported Cavendish. According to Hugh, they crop all year round and will even withstand a light frost.
In addition to the fruit, a local market of bananas means a ready supply of fresh banana leaves and blossom, both products previously only available frozen or in a can.