A partnership between Tai Pukenga Ltd and AgResearch has seen an initial trial crop, with plans to plant more trees in December and January, which could see fruit for sale in as soon as 18 months. Banana Project Manager for Tai Pukenga, Trevor Mills says the initial crop, located in the Gisborne region, will be of the Cavendish variety, with farmers markets the likely starting point.
"One grower has established what we are calling our first commercial banana plantation, that is planting the rows 2 metres apart," he said. "He has put in around 30 plants, just as a trial, and they are growing quite well, even in these winter conditions. We are now identifying other possible growers around the whole region and we have half a dozen possibilities lined up. There are heaps of banana clumps growing in people’s backyards in the Gisborne area."
While New Zealand may not seem to have the right climate to grow bananas, Mr Mills reassures that the fruit has been grown there successfully for decades. He adds that the temperatures are generally warming in the region, and despite five frost events this year, none of the plants in the trial are showing any damage caused by the cold.
"There has been quite a change in the climate here in the past three or four years," Mr Mills said. "Most of our rainfall comes from the north-east, off the Pacific Ocean, which has come from the Pacific Islands. We have had situations in the middle of winter here in the last couple of seasons, with temperatures at 2 am of 16 degrees Celsius."
In fact, he says, bananas have been growing successfully in the region for decades. Fellow Gisborne local, and "banana guru" Rodger Bodle first planted a tree at the age of nine, 70 years ago, when he was given one as a gift by a neighbour from Fiji. Since then he has filled his backyard with around 25 varieties from around the world. He attempted to establish a commercial banana industry more than 40 years ago, but applications for funding were knocked back by the government over concerns about the climate, despite Mr Bodle's track record for growing the fruit.
But Mr Mills pays full credit to the Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand for the inspiration to give the idea another try, after discovering that they were successfully selling the locally-grown fruit at farmers markets in North Auckland.
"We thought, if this is not telling us to get up and do something ourselves, then all the years of frustration, research and experimenting will be down the tube forever," he said. "But they are the ones that inspired us, and they should be given full credit. We can really only take notice of what has happened in North Auckland and the popularity of locally grown bananas there."
AgResearch became involved in the project after Mr Mills delivered a presentation at a Food Futures forum to identify new crops, and after joining forces, an application for funding was made to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Mr Mills says receiving more than $93,000 was like "winning the lotto".
"We fitted the criteria in that there were scientific job opportunities in regards to tissue culture propagation firstly," he said. "Secondly, the genomics and DNA identifications of certain varieties of bananas. The third thing that Dr Jane Mullaney was specialising in was into food and biobased products and she wanted to do a lot of research into the nutritional value of bananas. So, there were there three things on the scientific side, but then there was the innovation side, and bananas in New Zealand would have some sort of novelty."
The plan is to grow the trees from tissue culture in labs at Massey University in Palmerston North, before they are planted in the ground when they reach one metre in height.
"We had a visit from all the scientists at AgResearch a few weeks ago and they took back samples of banana plants, leaves, suckers and all sorts of things and they are working on growing the first banana plants from tissue culture methods, with the idea of producing a large number of plants so they can be brought back to the Gisborne area."
He adds that while the researchers are only looking at the Cavendish variety at the moment, Mr Bodle has a wide range of varieties in his backyard that could be used as a resource for further plants in future.
"There is one called the Double Mahoi, which is a Hawaiian variety that instead of throwing one bunch, throws two or three," Mr Mills said. "He has got the Williams variety and Cavendish and has a few dwarf varieties as well. So hopefully from the first tissue culture varieties, it will mainly be Cavendish, and as the research progresses we will be able to find what specific Cavendish variety they are because we have only sourced the plants from clumps growing in people's backyards."
Long term the plan is to expand the banana plantations and make them commercially viable, to produce enough volume to be sold nationwide - which will reduce the amount that is needed to be imported.