Public visits planned for one of New Zealand's largest tropical fruit farms

There are plans underway for the public to get access to a banana plantation in Northland early next year.

With the success of "Pick Your Own" farms of other fruits, Hugh Rose from the Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand (TFGNZ) wants to show off the locally grown bananas and highlight the produce that can be grown in that region.

"Guests can wander round and have a picnic, because we have got a 10-acre lake on the place, and then buy some fruit on the way out," Mr Rose said. "That will be our market, because I am pretty sure we will be popular given we are only 15 minutes from our CBD. We are hoping to be open by February, people can get a taste and have a look at it because I will have some fruit available then. Apart from that it's just a nice place to go for a wander."

The property is reputed to be a former American tank training ground, which is scrub land but sheltered from the strong winds, with volcanic soil and natural springwater, creating its own ecosystem. Mr Rose also plans to grow pineapples, cherimoya (similar to a custard apple) and avocado, while he has an experimental crop of paw paw.

But Mr Rose says that while demand is extremely high for locally grown tropical produce across the country, especially with bananas (NZ has one of the highest rates of banana consumption per capita) he would like to see it remain a niche product for as long as possible. The TFGNZ adds that handling issues mean that it is simpler for growers to sell their products direct to the consumer at places like farmers markets.

"I do not see for the foreseeable future any of our fruit going into supermarkets because of the way we are marketing. We have demand from around the country that we can't meet from health food and organic shops, and other things like that, who are more than happy to pay the premium. With the supermarkets you are locked in straight away to meeting a product standard and a lot of hoops to jump through - why would you bother. At the moment we are getting our $7/per kilogram."

Mr Rose has not always grown bananas. Originally, he owned cropping land, which produced small amounts of sweet potato and watermelon, but after meeting a banana grower at a farmers market, he began planting banana stems. Now has 14 different varieties, which continues to increase as he meets other growers who provide stems for him to plant. He adds that with the different trees that have made their way into the country in the past, recorded or not, there is potential for the industry to look at a specialty banana market.

"Different people like different bananas, like dwarf cavendish, Misi Luki, Goldfinger, Bonanza - they are pretty standard ones," he said. "But it is amazing how people say ‘that is definitely my favourite, that's the one I like’. People are different and have individual tastes, so there is a huge potential for doing a specialty banana market."

While New Zealand has longer winters than other countries, like neighbouring countries like Australia, Mr Rose says virtually anything can grow in the country, as long as growers protect their crops from frost. There are a wide variety of tropical fruits grown in the country on a small scale, with the TFGNZ identifying pineapples one of the next crops that could take off.

In addition, not having the heat means the products grow slower, which he says can have its own benefits.

"Northland is fairly frost free, at worst you probably get 4-5 frosts a year," Mr Rose said. "Even as far south as Nelson there are frost free zones, so if you have a frost-free zone, there is no reason why you can't grow something. The only thing with the bananas is they do grow slower. Some plants like mangoes, they are rain intolerant, so they produce fruit during the dry season. If they get rain, they drop their fruit or drop their flowers. So, they have to be undercover. For commercial crops you just have to note that in New Zealand they just grow a bit slower but generally you get more sugar, and intense flavours if you are happy to wait."

While the mainstream market may be a way off for New Zealand growers, they have already set up stringent biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of disease, and Mr Rose has identified the need to look at import restrictions as the industry grows.

Mr Rose adds that bananas flourish in nutrient rich areas such as on the banks of effluent ponds and as the stems can be fed to cattle they make a sensible alternative to importing palm kernel for those farmers that have a place for them. Bananas will produce 13 tonne of dry matter per annum which is quite comparable to the best Northland pastures, and not only benefits the horticulture industry, but the wider agriculture sector.

"In New Zealand we have a lot of imported palm kernel, and palm oil is not always eco-friendly," he said. "A by-product is the nut fibre that is fed to cattle for feed. My knowledge of cattle and bananas, when you put the two together, the first thing I say is here you have a plant that loves copious amounts of fertiliser, why aren't we putting it around the dairy farmers effluent fields to clean up the waterways?"

For more information
Hugh Rose
Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand
Phone: +64 27 439 1572

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