By Hugh Lovel
The first biodynamic banana farm I consulted for was in Innisfail, Far Northern Queensland in 2005. It was a bit upland on the coastal side of the Dividing Range with good rainfall and awesome red basalt soils. The grower showed me a picture from his first banana harvest 40 years previously where he and his brother cleared a few hectares of rainforest, burned the timber, spread the ashes and—something new after WW II—they fumigated the soil with methyl bromide and gave it a powerful blend of soluble NPK before planting. His picture showed a world record 314 pound bunch of bananas. “And,” he said, “It went straight downhill from there. This time I thought I’d do something different.”
My mental image was one of all that biomass—living protoplasm—released all in one flush from a thriving rainforest soil. And then it became an ordinary banana plantation. By themselves, bananas only took up what they needed and the rest went to waste. Every ecosystem collapses when the diversity of organisms sharing essential jobs and processes is broken and lost. The result is a leaky bucket, and the life leaks away.
This grower cleared and planted his field in a legume called pinto peanut (Arachis pintoi) along with mixed grasses and volunteers. This is a perennial forage legume that grows from a central crown with a several meter deep tap root, and when it blooms it sticks its pod in the ground and spreads by planting itself. Grazing rotationally with sheep led to peanut dominance in preparation for planting bananas. For the banana rows, using his Yoemans’ Plough, he ripped two parallel trenches two meters apart and alternated his Cavendish banana sets zig-zag between the two trenches to ensure robust root exudate overlap. Grown biodynamically this commercial variety yields a creamy, aromatic fruit that, when ripe, has a moist, light-yellow colour like clover-fed Jersey butter. And once the young banana ‘trees’ grew tall enough the farmer went back to rotational grazing with sheep.
With rotational grazing, maximizing growth maximizes grazing. Grass dairies adjust their herds and pastures to graze, either by day or night but never both in succession. Long grazing periods allow livestock to eat the best plants down to a nub and leave unpalatable or trashy plants with enough leaf panel to take off again. Grazing only about 40 % and leaving 60 % behind–some gets trampled and feeds the soil food web, but there’s enough leaf panel left for quick re-growth. Commonly it takes three weeks before re-grazing, though
There is a vigorous biodynamic group on the Atherton Tablelands with dedication to making excellent preps and holding workshops. This farmer was producing cheaply and efficiently, and he reckoned these were the best bananas he had grown in forty years—since that first banana crop where he cashed in all the protoplasm of a living rainforest. His chief problem was banana rust thrips causing unmarketable fruit. My take on this was not so much an inner vegetative weakness that invited the animal digestion into the early formation of the fruit. Yes, its physical structure was too weak in its early development of cell walls and connective tissues. But my sense was the animal digestion (astrality) was too weak around the banana roots, and thus the amino acids drawn from the soil to form the new fruit were too mineral (nitrate) This invites the thrips to feast during the earliest development of fingers after petals open, causing a water-soaked appearance to the newborn hand of bananas—a clear case for using the dandelion and horsetail preparations in the canopy, and the chamomile and nettle preparations on the soil to boost the astral complexity the plant draws in at its roots. Potassium silicate and soluble humates fortnightly in the irrigation would help, as silica lies at the basis of physical structure.
I’ve seen and consulted for my share of biodynamic banana farms, but most of my conventional banana farmers used biodynamic preparation patterns imparted to the products they used because they got good results and problems were minimized. Humic and fulvic acid feed the soil biology that cleans up Roundup and other toxic residues, but it also grows better bananas. I have recipes for these inputs in my book, Quantum Agriculture.
Banana farming is a hard business. The biodynamic farmer and his wife in the above example retired as the work became too much. A big biodynamic farm planted in Mareeba, terraced beautifully with the local majestic boulders, connected by wide avenues shaded with mangos and undersown in pinto peanut, dandelions and mixed perennial grasses. These folks lost a tractor-trailer load of fruit shipped 3000 km to Sydney. The shipment was rejected as rotten upon receipt and auctioned off, a windfall for an unscrupulous broker but a total loss for the farmers. My own immigration sponsor was ripped off for shipments of biodynamic potatoes and zucchinis to a wholesaler in Melbourne who sold the produce but never paid for it. The Mareeba banana folks asked themselves why work so hard just to lose a few hundred grand in one rip-off? They sold up and that beautiful farm with its rich soils is now a full-on chemical plantation using Roundup and growing large quantities of tasty-as-chalk bananas.
One of the people I have consulted for is Frank Sciacca, who has popularized the Red Tip Eco Bananas which are easy to see in supermarkets because the banana tips are dipped in red wax. See picture. His commitment to the environment shows in his low nitrogen, herbicide and insecticide free approach that has resulted in some of the best insect collections I’ve seen in Australia.
Managing bananas goes beyond the tree making a bunch of 10 or more hands. You try to have as many functional leaves as there are hands of bananas in the bunch. Alongside this is the decaying trunk of the previous tree with its top cut down so the crown reabsorbs what it can. Close by is the adolescent trunk that will take the place of the present producing tree. And alongside that should be a few suckers, one of which will be chosen to be the next adolescent tree. There’s all kinds of tropical vines, some of which love to climb bananas, so a good, non-climbing ground cover is a big help. I’ve visited and consulted for banana growers all the way south to Coff’s Harbour, where the first commercial bananas were grown in Australia. I’ve been telling Florida citrus growers they should diversify into bananas, as Floridians can grow bananas in their yards. But if they do they will have to give up their chemicals and rejuvenate their environment with what they grow because Life is the biggest deficiency in agriculture.
My preferred clients are new growers, who know they don’t know much about growing bananas, so they follow instructions carefully. It’s the conventional growers looking to convert that have trouble. They are used to the WOW effect when they apply chemical nitrogen, and they don’t get that with biodynamics, which builds nitrogen fixation into the soil biology. The biodynamic approach is so gradual that four out of five think they will assist the BD program with some urea and other fertiliser salts. This damages the soil food web and sets progress back to the start.