The Medicine of Nature
Meet the masterminds behind the iconic wax-tipped bananas
Growing perfect-looking fruit is no easy feat. For years, Frank and Dianne Sciacca tried to chase blemish-free banana yields by pumping their soil full of fertilisers and chemicals.
They sterilised their soil to kill pests and diseases, only to build it back up again for the next cropping season. It was a cycle that at times had a detrimental impact on the surrounding ecosystem.
In 1998 the Sciaccas reached breaking point and despite enormous pressure to meet market specifications, they sought out a new, more sustainable agricultural system.
They discovered a creature-friendly method of farming where organisms great and small were valued while still maintaining their flavoursome and quality produce. They called it the Ecoganic Protocol.
The new system would mimic the way nature intended bananas to grow.
The Sciaccas spent long hours learning how soil biology could work in perfect harmony with the sun, the weather and native wildlife to grow creamier, sweeter tasting fruit with a longer shelf life.
They stopped using products that killed organisms and opted to use a mix of organic and synthetic products that had minimal impact on the soil, encouraging native insects and animals back to their farm.
Their property in Innisfail in far north Queensland is now home to six thriving species of wasps, including a relatively unknown and rare species called the ‘paper’ wasp, which feeds on pests such as moths. Blue Shield Beetles are welcomed in record numbers during springtime when they help control the farm’s spider mite problem.
They have also strategically placed ponds and spoon drains around the farm to catch runoff and attract local wildlife including wallabies, reptiles and hundreds of native birds.
The Ecoganic Protocol has been described as ahead of its time, receiving a formal endorsement from the Great Barrier Reef Research foundation.
The environmentally friendly system has revolutionised the way Frank and Dianne approach farming, enabling fungicide reduction of up to 60 per cent.
Their Eco Bananas have found a loyal customer base with demand remaining strong ever since their market debut at the turn of the millennium.
This is where the ingenious of the wax-tip comes in, which is non-toxic, safe and recyclable, and dipped by hand – similar to what is used on soft cheeses.
The iconic trademark is a beacon for both the loyal and prospective customer who can be assured the Eco Bananas have been grown through the love and care of sustainable agricultural methods with the least intervention of any farming system in the world.
Dianne said the wax tip was Frank’s idea, the culmination of a long lasting obsession to find a way to differentiate their product from their competition.
“He would drive me insane, every time he’d walk in from the shed he’d go ‘I’ve gotta find a way to identify my bananas, this is all for nothing if I can’t identify them,’ and we’d come up with weird and wonderful ideas,” she said.
“Then one day I came home and there were bananas sitting in a bowl in the kitchen dipped in green and blue paint and he said ‘that’s how I want them to look’, and I just said to him ‘you’re nuts’.”
After their first taste of market success, the Sciaccas brought other growers on board to form a certified grower group in 2001.
Currently the group consists of six farming families from north Queensland who collectively produce over 400 hectares of bananas.
Dianne said she and Frank alone grow across 48 hectares and employ 17 workers in the field.
“We’re the baby of the group as far as production goes but that’s intentional. It was never Frank’s goal to get bigger. It was about getting other farmers on board and growing farming systems across industry,” Dianne said.
Because they’re operating in a niche market, the Sciaccas harvest 52 weeks of the year, and have done so for over a decade. In order to reduce waste, they are very diligent in ensuring they only send to markets what is ordered.
Their Eco Bananas are available in nearly all Australian States and Territories at major retail stores such as Woolworths and Coles, and in various smaller markets. They have been exporting their produce to Hong Kong since 2009, and Singapore in the last two years.
However, with the Australian banana market at saturation point, the Sciaccas are looking to diversify their crop. They believe that if their farming system can work for bananas, why not for other fruit and vegetables too? The way they see it, the only way to grow as a business is to value-add; and as their past experience demonstrates, they are not afraid to ‘give it a go’.
So far, they have trialled an acre of paw-paws, and in the last 18 months another of their certified growers has planted avocado trees.
It’s a game of continuous improvement, often achieved through trial and error, for the Sciaccas who have suffered their fair share of heavy crop losses twice from cyclones in 2006 and 2011 – on which occasion it took 10 to 12 months for bananas to regrow.
But the hard work has all been worth it for Dianne who said she was floored by the high praise they received last year at the Queensland Farmers’ Federation’s Reef Alliance Awards when they took out the Prince of Wales Environmental Leadership – Reef Sustainability Award.
“Sometimes you feel like you get stones thrown at you all the time, and to have that recognition by the Queensland Farmers’ Federation was hugely gratifying,” Dianne said.
For their innovative approach to reducing harmful runoff and protecting the Great Barrier Reef, they were honoured with a one-on-one meeting with the Prince of Wales himself.
Dianne was ultimately moved by the experience despite admitting she was never the kind of person who would stand in line to see a royal.
“I wasn’t jumping out of my skin or anything. But after meeting him I was quite in awe,” Dianne said.
“With Prince Charles you could tell it was coming from the heart. He actually said to us ‘it’s only just a very small thing, but it’s something that we wanted to do to give recognition for those people who are doing good things like you are’.”
To add to their growing collection, the Sciaccas recently received the Environmental Award at the Hort Connections 2018 National Awards for Excellence for their outstanding contribution to nature in horticultural production.
With all God’s greenery at their feet, one wonders what is next on the agenda for Frank and Dianne to accomplish.
Eco tourism is something that the pair see evolving in the future. They already host educational farm tours for school students from grade nine all the way through to university from New South Wales and Queensland.
“Teachers love it because they can follow our product right through the supply chain from the farming, the group dynamics, the sales and marketing, right through to exports. It really comes full circle,” Dianne said.
“We deliver the requirement for their curriculum and they get to have a tour of our farm, make a banana smoothie and see our shed in operation.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Frank and Dianne are looking at building an agri-tourism centre and laboratory close by the farm that the general public can visit when they’re travelling through town.
Dianne is looking forward to having a little more room to move since their current centre of operations cannot contain the demand.
“I’ve had up to thirty people in my office for these tours and we’re running out of space!”
Eco Bananas is featured in the October 2018 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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Written by Sam Allen-Ankins
Photo credits: Will Work For Food