Coast banana survivors reap the rewards but will they carry on?
By BELINDA F SCOTT
NO millionaires, but plenty of happy faces among the dwindling band of banana growers, is the picture of the Coffs Coast banana industry at the end of 2006.
Fat cheques pocketed by the Coffs Coast's 'banana barons' in the nine months since Cyclone Larry devastated the North Queensland banana industry in March, have simply made up for many years of low fruit prices, say growers.
The money has gone into improving plantations, diversifying into blueberries, replacing ageing vehicles and investing in farm management deposits to help them weather future lean years.
Wholesale prices for 13kg cartons of local bananas peaked at $145 a carton for about a month, but good growers were getting prices of more than $100 a carton for more than four months.
For once the climate and weather co-operated with plenty of rain and an excellent growing season for bananas on the Coffs Coast.
"The good money enabled a lot of us to catch up," said Boambee grower Ted Knoblock, "but only six or seven really big growers were getting mega-heaps."
Mr Knoblock, the founder of the Gecko subtropical banana brand, said this year had improved the chances of sub-tropical fruit, because merchants had found they could ripen and keep it it just as successfully as Queensland fruit.
Woolgoolga banana grower Sid Sidhu, who had diversified into blueberries before Cyclone Larry, said both crops had done well this year.
"People in town are upset (about the high banana prices) but they don't understand the implications of farming," he said.
"You've had nil income for three years, working for nothing every day, but you can never give up ? if you decrease your inputs, you've missed the boat (when prices go up). We won't get $145 a carton again, but I'm happy to get $25.
South Boambee banana grower Robert Pike said he had become sick of 'subsistence farming' and was thinking of throwing up his hands and getting a job in town before Cyclone Larry.
A supporter of the Baby Blue sub-tropical banana marketing campaign for small, sweet bananas, he is now expecting banana prices to crash and then recover.
Taylors Arm banana and pork grower Steve Spear says he has made good money, but has used his banana cheques to buy a new four-wheel drive to replace his 16-year-old model and done repairs on his piggery. He says, drily, he won't have too much trouble with tax.
Ron Gray from Woolgoolga says 2006 has seen the best prices in history for the Coffs Coast's banana industry, but he has just got back the money he's spent on his plantation in the past three years.
Now approaching his 69th birthday, he may be among those bowing out of the industry next year.
Coffs Coast growers currently have little fruit left to cut, but 240,000 cartons of North Queensland fruit are reported to be heading for the central markets this week.