Nambucca's banana growers determined to bounce back

Photo of the Spears' farm. Photo taken by the family.
Photo of the Spears' farm. Photo taken by the family.

Four banana growers in our Valley are continuing to recover after suffering severe losses from the catastrophic Kian Rd fire.

Guardian News previously reported on Michael and Stephen Spear who lost 20 acres of Cavendish plants, but David Cotton and Clinton Welsh have also suffered huge blows to their livelihoods.

Returning to full production could take up to 18 months for these growers, after entire plantations were decimated in the destructive blazes, described as the worst in living memory.

The road to recovery, both financially and emotionally, will be a long one, but almost all are determined to bounce back.

Photo taken by the Spear family

Photo taken by the Spear family

'Everything's gone'

David Cotton was travelling to Newcastle when fire tore through his 53 acre Yarranbella farm, on Friday, November 8.

He returned to discover he'd lost everything.

"It was exactly as I expected," he said.

"I did have reports while I was in Newcastle of what had happened. I was told that it was a firestorm like you wouldn't believe. I was a bit hopeful about my (new) tractor, but as you've seen, it went.

"[I lost] everything. All the equipment. Everything associated with growing bananas has been burnt.

"The bananas themselves [six acres] they will come back. It will probably take 12-18 months for the bananas. But I'm not very hopeful about my avocados and fruit trees that I had, they don't look very good to me at all. I probably will replant and just take it from there."

David has been farming bananas on the property for the past 31 years. In all that time, he's never witnessed such devastation.

"Worst [bushfire] I've ever seen, anywhere. On the Thursday afternoon my brother and myself went down along Kosekai Road to have a look at it, and it was going north, away from us on another opposite ridge. Apparently, Friday afternoon a strong wind came up and sent it back this way."

Sifting through rubble that used to be his shed, David estimated his losses at more than $250,000.

Most of it I won't be able to replace, not in my lifetime anyway, it just costs too much money. I'll have to have some sort of a shed, but it won't be anything like the one I had, that's for sure.

David Cotton

Despite the circumstances, David remained positive about the future but said he was not expecting to receive any recovery support from government: "I don't expect too much from anyone. The government's giving out grants, but the process is so complicated I don't expect to get anything out of that. I'd be very surprised if we do."

Clinton Welsh was just starting out, now he's faced with starting over

Industry newcomer, Clinton Welsh, planted his first crop of bananas on his Talarm property in the Nambucca Valley in February.

After losing almost everything on the farm in the fire, the young grower is now having to contemplate whether it's worth starting over.

"I've lost the packing shed, I've lost my banana wheel, basically I've lost everything inside this shed to process the banana product - bags, spray tanks, chemicals, fertilisers, lime, you name it," he said.

"I've also lost my trailer, I lost my fire fighter [equipment], I've probably lost 50 per cent of my irrigation, but I've managed to salvage bits by cutting off the burnt bits and re-joining all the good bits.

So all told, I've just basically got to start again. That's the bottom line. And, I've got to prioritise whether I do start again. Because of financial constraints, and trying to balance another full time job, is it worth it?

Clinton Welsh

Clinton is a third generation banana grower. The farm where he has Ducasse bananas planted, has been in his family for more than 100 years.

"My grandfather first planted bananas in 1972 and my father took them on until the early 2000s, and I restarted them in February 2019," he said.

"I've always wanted to grow bananas. I've always had a passion for bananas.

"I've always wanted to be part of the farm. But because of financial constraints in the industry - it can't support families any more - you've got to go off farm. So, I was essentially guided to go away and get a trade. And, I was probably just a bit too young all those years ago to deal with bananas, when dad got out of them."

Mr Welsh said his introduction to bananas had been a "pretty tough start", involving a lot of hard work, many trials and tribulations, and was all done out of his own "back pocket".

"And now, to have this happen, it puts you back to square one I suppose. The whole exercise has been absolutely mentally draining, because there has always been set backs."

He wasn't at the farm when the fire storm ripped through, but was counting the costs and surveying the damage soon after.

"I saw it ignite out the back and I thought ... there's nothing to worry about, because the fire fighters and everyone else had done a good job in containing it.

"And then by 3 o'clock you could just tell something wasn't right. The weather wasn't right. It was windy high in the trees, but it was dead still on the ground.

"I had to pick my daughter up. So I felt it best to first go over to the home farm and get dad, but he was in the paddock so I thought, well everything has to be alright, if he's out in the paddock. He's not worried about it.

"I rang dad at 6 o'clock and said "How's things going?" and he said, "It's no good, you'd better get up here. When I got up here, the fire front had gone through and we were just putting out spot fires".

Mr Welsh said he was still dealing with the emotional side of losing everything he needed to continue farming, with none of his infrastructure, trailer or equipment insured.

"It's fairly hard. I mean I haven't processed it all yet because there's no time, you just have to pick yourself up and get going.

You know, you can't prepare yourself for these sorts of events. You see it on TV over the years, people go through fire storms and you think 'You poor buggers. You know, how can you pick yourself back up again?' But I think it's just in our DNA and we just do it.

"Thankfully, I had the irrigation going on the bananas (when the fire went through) so that sort of gave me a bit of hope that things were going to be ok.

"I'm not sure about the bananas yet. I think the parent plant will be ok. I am worried about what sort of bunch that they'll form, because of the stress. But, I believe that they're young enough to grow out of that. It's the followers with the parent plant that I'm a bit worried about. I think I may have lost 50 per cent of them.

"I was looking at my first block bunching at about Easter next year, but we're now probably looking at winter. And, as far as a second following goes, I'm not really sure."

Appeal to support banana growers affected by bushfires

If you'd like to help out our local growers, a special Go Fund Me campaign has been established to raise much needed financial assistance.

Growers are unable to insure crops and most of those affected have little to no insurance cover on farming infrastructure, machinery and other farming equipment.

Industry representatives are working with growers to access any government assistance available, however differing personal circumstances means this might not always be an option.

The 'Banana Growers' Bushfire Appeal' Go Fund Me campaign is being run by Vicki McCudden, Chair of the Nambucca Banana Growers' Association. It has the support of the Nambucca and Cassowary Coast BGA's, as well as the Australian Banana Growers' Council.

All money raised will go directly to bushfire-affected banana growers.

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