Farmers in the Northern Territory are planting bananas again after being forced to pull out every plant they had a few years ago.
It was all to stop the spread of banana freckle, a fungus which makes the fruit unsellable, but some people say the eradication program was heavy handed. There are now concerns that growers in the $9 million industry will not cooperate if there is another biosecurity outbreak in the future. Banana freckle cannot be eradicated by chemicals and spreads by the movement of spores on wet leaves, and contaminated fruit shipments.
Husband and wife banana growers Alan Petersen and Julie-Ann Murphy have just finished replanting their new Cavendish and lady finger banana varieties at their organic farm near Darwin.
In 2013, there were existing strains of banana freckle in Australia, but a new strain affecting the most popular variety — Cavendish — was found on their farm.
A decision was made by the NT Government and the Banana Growers Council to eradicate bananas across the Top End to try to stop the spread of fungus into other states, particularly Queensland.
“When you’re told that suddenly you can’t do that anymore and that’s your main stream of income … all of a sudden you’re like a ship without a rudder, just going around in circles,” Mr Petersen said.
“Of course, financial unknowns, it was a huge financial unknown because we’ve still got mortgages to pay off, and vehicles that we had to pay off, a tractor etcetera. “So it was a pretty rude shock and a lot of sleepless nights.”
Mr Petersen said the Government’s decision left him feeling numb and thinking he was finished with farming.
“At the time of the quarantining … we were about to expand and double, if not triple, our production in bananas to be able to make a decent living.” “Basically at that stage 95 to 98 per cent of our income was derived from our banana growing.”
The couple planted pawpaws to try to keep the cash flowing, but it was a year before the plants were ready to produce fruit.
The couple were paid some compensation, but it was not enough and they were both forced to find work off their farm to stay afloat. Many smaller market farmers did not receive anything.
It is the sort of story that has NT Farmers Association president Simon Smith worried.
Simon Smith said there is still plenty of anger directed towards the biosecurity team. “Next time there’s an outbreak unfortunately there’ll be locked gates again and there’ll be negative responses because of the handling of banana freckle,” he said.
Mr Petersen said he was just glad the ban was over, and he was focusing on getting banana plants back in the ground. “It’s all been a learning experience, it’s not one I would have necessarily have chosen, but we’re pretty happy just to be back,” he said.
“Now it’s … far easier to get up every morning and get out there and work.