Mick Gentle is a local banana farmer who was born and raised on the Coffs Coast and has been farming in the area for the last 27 years. He feels his love of the land was inherited from his grandfather and after speaking with him, we can see how passionate he is about farming and great local produce.
Hey Mick. Can you share with us a bit about your background, and how long you have been a banana farmer here on the Coffs Coast?
I’ve been growing bananas in Bonville for 27 years. Born and bred in Karangi, I left Orara High School in 1984 to work for Coffs Removals. I was there for 10 years, before starting out growing bananas on a run down farm in Bonville.
My first wife and I grew a combination of varieties on the farm, such as Williams, Cavendish, Goldfinger, Ducasse and Lady fingers. It was many years of hard work getting the farm established and profitable. As well as farming, we raised two great kids, both now adults, and my son is now becoming a very competent banana farmer in his own right.
In 2011, after my marriage broke down, I came very close to leaving the industry. But with the support of some neighbours and a bit of luck, I was able to continue farming on 5 acres of leased land in Bonville.
One day in Bunnings, I was pleasantly surprised to see a friend from my school days, who is now my lovely wife. Together we found a beautiful secluded 14 acres of north facing land with a house and shed at the end of Cassidys Road in Bonville, which we cleared, and it is now our home and my banana farm.
What inspired you to become a banana farmer?
My grandfather first grew bananas in Karangi and had a large property with cattle, chickens, fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Growing up, I loved spending time on the farm and around the sheds; there was always an adventure to be had. I believe I inherited my love of the land from him. When I had the opportunity to grow bananas, I grabbed it with both hands, and I am so grateful that I did.
How has the industry changed over the years?
Regulations and industry accreditation guidelines are tighter now and require more and more effort to stay compliant. Biosecurity has become really important to protect the farm from the impacts of disease. Changes in technology have made things easier in some ways, but for farmers sometimes staying on top of these changes can be a real challenge. Cartons are now premade and not timber and the transport is faster, by truck rather than by rail.
What are some of the biggest challenges in the industry at the moment?
The spread of disease – many people will have heard about the Panama TR4 outbreak in North Queensland. There are other strains of this disease which are a threat to NSW Farmers.
Weather is always a challenge in the industry. It doesn’t matter where the farm is, while I may be worried about drought, other farmers could be facing cyclones or hail. Farmers are always at the mercy of the weather.
What does a typical day look like for you, and what’s the process from growing to being in the fruit bowl?
There isn’t really a “typical” day on the farm; anything can happen!
Before the banana can be in the fruit bowl, once the plant is in the ground weeds have to be sprayed, the plants are fertilised, suckers are removed (these are the shoots from the mother plant) leaving just one to grow a bunch for the next year’s crop.
Once the plant throws a “bunch”, it has to be pruned and covered with a bag for protection.
Once the bunch has matured, which can take four to six months, it is manually cut from the plant, transported to the shed, and the fruit is cut from the bunch into hands, washed, graded, sorted, and packed into cartons.
My bananas are then transported to my agent in the Sydney markets for sale.
What type of bananas do you grow and why?
I choose to grow the Rossi Lady Finger and Ducasse varieties of bananas. I chose the Rossi Lady Finger, after well known local farmer Gerry Rossi came across a shorter Lady Finger plant growing among the taller plants in his farm and decided to propagate from this one plant, thus creating this variety. This plant is half the height of the standard Lady Finger variety, which makes it easier to put a bag on to the bunch, and it is easier to harvest. As a bonus, this fruit has all the great characteristics of the standard Lady Finger.
Ducasse bananas are a Vietnamese variety. They aren’t normally found at your local supermarket, but they are making an appearance in our local growers and Sunday markets. They are easy to grow and very resilient and yield a dense, creamy and delicious fruit, unlike any other banana you would have tasted.
What has been your secret for maintaining a successful business for over 20 years?
There’s no secret for me; maintaining a successful business is all about the end product.
When my fruit is to my complete satisfaction, I feel a sense of pride that I have done the best job possible throughout the whole growing process. It is so rewarding when I can look into one of my cartons and feel, “WOW that’s great fruit”! There is nothing that completes me more; this is where my passion pays off.
What are your hopes for the banana industry here in Coffs moving into the future?
My hope for the future is that our local farmers keep the iconic Coffs Harbour banana alive and prosperous. There is hope with some new varieties available, and a younger generation of farmers with enthusiasm to grow and change with all the challenges they are faced with in our industry today.
It would be great if the smaller farmers here in NSW can continue to grow beautiful fruit for the larger market and still be profitable. I’d love to see that our local consumers embrace new varieties and continue to support local produce.