The expression ‘you’re driving me bananas’ has nothing to do with being frustrated or driven crazy for some forward-thinking Northland dairy farmers.
Rather, they find the idea of bananas – or banana plants, to be specific – pretty appealing, either planted in stock excluded riparian zones between waterways and the fence, or plantation-style on the farm where they can be grown for harvest, or for fodder for their cows.
Graeme Edwards and Alec Jack are two of the Northland dairy farmers putting bananas to the test to see whether the plant can utilise dairy effluent.
While the trials are informal at present, and very much in the early days, DairyNZ’s land and water management specialist Dr Electra Kalaugher says banana plants have potential for ‘mopping up’ nutrients in largely frost-free regions like Northland.
“Dairy farmers are always looking to step more lightly on the land, and they’re enthusiastic and innovative in seeking solutions.
“The banana plant’s appetite for nitrogen and potassium is well-known in traditional banana growing countries. We’re very keen to see how these plantings progress.”
She adds that harvested fruit might eventually make for an additional revenue stream for some farmers, and the banana plant foliage may also provide another source of supplementary feed that is palatable to cows.
Mr Edwards, who has farmed for nearly 40 years at Pakotai, just off SH 15 on the way from Whangarei to Kaikohe, planted 70 Misi Luki bananas a year ago. Already some of the plants are over two metres tall. This variety is especially disease resistant, grows to between three and four metres tall, producing a smaller fruit that is reported to be particularly tasty.
“We are now looking for some funding and expert assistance so we can scale up the trial plot to evaluate if a perennial banana plantation is a more sustainable alternative to our traditional annual turnip summer crop,” he says.
“The plants need to grow for up to two years before they’ll fruit, but all parts of the plant could well be a good source of feed for the cows.”
“I haven’t given my cows a taste just yet, but in other countries where bananas are grown farmers report their cows love bananas, the fruit and the plant, leaves, stems and all.”
Two months ago Alec Jack, who farms about an hour further north near Pakaraka, planted bananas in two areas of his property – alongside a dairy race which runs adjacent to a stream and in an area near the milking shed.
“I was looking for a nutrient hungry plant species – and banana plants are known to be a gross feeder,” he says.
He sourced banana plant cuttings from a grower near Waitangi after tasting locally grown fruit.
“I was very impressed with the firm texture and sweet taste. I was sceptical of the thin, black skin – but the taste was amazing. I’m confident in the future of these varieties grown locally. They really are an entirely different eating experience compared to the imported varieties we’re more accustomed to – and of course the provenance of locally grown bananas is outstanding.”
As a highly water-efficient, funnel shaped plant, bananas grow well on most soil types and tolerate many pests and diseases.
Based on the success of these informal trials, other dairy farmers in Northland and in the Auckland region may soon have the option of also going bananas.