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Community & Business

11 March, 2021

TC Niran wreaks havoc on banana industry

ANGELO and Heather Russo were just about to hit peak production on their 162ha Boogan banana farm outside Innisfail, when they were knocked right out of the game by Tropical Cyclone Niran last Monday.


Around 95% of damage to northern banana farms has occurred in the Hill electorate. Member for Hill, Shane Knuth inspects the carnage caused by TC Niran with Nathan Puccini, who suff ered huge losses in his Cowley banana plantation

BY SALLY TURLEY

ANGELO and Heather Russo were just about to hit peak production on their 162ha Boogan banana farm outside Innisfail, when they were knocked right out of the game by Tropical Cyclone Niran last Monday. 

“We pick bananas every week of the year, but production was firing up right before this happened and we were about to start harvesting double the quantity of fruit we had been picking so far this season,” Mr Russo said.

The Russos were unlucky to be in the narrow corridor of destruction caused by Niran that levelled farms through the Boogan/Wangan area, destroying entire paddocks of one of the nations most valuable fruit crops. 

Mr Russo said this blow to the business came on the heels of a general downturn in the banana industry.

“We have been cutting fruit for returns of at or below cost for the last 8 - 10 months. There are no reserves in the system, so we will just have to wear it,” he said.

“We have been growing bananas here since 1986, and while Niran did not cause as much structural damage to houses and sheds on the property as we experienced with Tropical Cyclone Yasi, the banana trees were stripped of their leaves, broken off and torn apart by the winds. 

"A smaller area of farms were affected this time, but the farms that were affected, were devestated."

“The Wangan and Boogan area has copped it the hardest in the district and we won't be picking any fruit now for the next five or six months. 

“We will be waiting for the suckers to grow and replace the adult trees and even when picking does finally start again, it will be a slow build up back to where we were before the cyclone hit.” 

Mr Russo said they had been slowly phasing out of growing sugar cane, which had become less lucrative over recent years and had been expanding their area under bananas. Just when that transition was almost complete, they have suffered a major set back from mother nature.

“The worst part of it now is the huge clean up,” Mr Russo said.

“We still have to keep all our field staff employed to help clean up the mess and begin with the replanting, but the returns will be minimal for months to come. 

“Hardly any of the fruit will be able to be salvaged from the trees in time. We only have a couple of days to get what we can off before it gets too hot. Even then, we are limited to the fruit that is big enough to sell, that hasn't been damaged in the storm and hasn't been lying in the mud. That doesn't leave us much.”

As for the future, Mr Russo said banana growers in the area didn't have a lot of choice. 

“Sugar cane and bananas are the only crops you can grow in any scale in this area and there is no money in sugar at the moment, so once you are in the banana industry, you just have to stay in it,” he said. 

“We will have to assess what we are going to do about re-establishment considering the scale of the damage we have suffered. We will try and bring 70-80% of the plantation back, but the rest may have to lay fallow until we get back on our feet.” 

Federal member for Kennedy Bob Katter and Member for Hill Shane Knuth, spent a day touring the worst affected areas and offering support to growers, families and staff affected, where estimated losses of up to $200,000 have been suffered by locals.

Most of the Cassowary Coast region, except for Tully, have experienced crop losses between 20 per cent to 100 per cent from Fishery Falls to Cowley, Mission Beach, parts of El Arish and inland across to Walkamin and the Atherton Tablelands. 

Mr Knuth said they encountered a sense of despair amongst farmers who were finally seeing a path forward for the 2021 season. After months of negotiation with government, a number of farms had just signed off on documents that promised an end to staff shortages.

This new workforce would now have to be sustained during a difficult period of little to no income for the next few months. He said his and Bob's primary focus was about trying to obtain financial assistance to support businesses during this time. 

He said they were in talks with the Agriculture Minister's office about accessing JobKeeper and low interest loans of up to $250,000 through Queensland Rural and Industry Development Authority. 

“But at this stage, this event has not been declared a natural disaster, even though it clearly qualifies as one,” Mr Knuth said. 

“We are hoping affected areas from Mission Beach, the area around Innisfail and parts of the Atherton Tablelands will be declared.

“As an alternative, we are encouraging affected growers to lodge an Individual Disaster Stricken Property Declaration. There are a number of Department of Agriculture and Fisheries staff out in the field at the moment, ready to assess applicants."  

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