Dreaming big .. brothers in arms building banana empire

In a region that has been hit by its fair share of challenges, Paula Doran meets two inspiring brothers  who are determined to break into the New South Wales banana industry and make things work.

Ethan (21) and Zack McKeever (25) are two Murwillumbah locals who have their sights firmly set on building empires from bananas.

The brothers grew up on a poultry farm in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales (NSW).  And, while they both work in various jobs in town, they are quickly chipping away at bananas.

“On both sides of our families our grandparents had banana farms,” says Zack.  “Unfortunately, though, they sold those farms.”

As with any farming/horticulture sector, it’s a difficult and expensive job to break into from scratch, but one gets a sense these two have got it covered.

With a quiet determination, they have leased two blocks outside Murwillumbah and begun planting from bits and suckers which have been sourced from a Coffs Harbour block.  Their crop of choice is Dwarf Lady Fingers and, thanks to a dedicated ‘after-hours’ farm focus, which works around their various day jobs, they now have 85 plants in the ground.

Travel by car to their new block with them and you soon get a sense of the chemistry and camaraderie involved in their shared dream.  They both enjoy different aspects of the farm management; they agree, so they work well together.  And they take great joy in their budding banana business.

“Ethan’s got banana sap on all his clothes — we need to get him a new banana cap, one for the block, and one for special occasions that doesn’t have sap on it,” Zack laughs.

Behind the banter though, is a pair of young men who are willing to put in the hard yards to get things done.

“We certainly have different long-term ambitions, but we want to start this right and do things well,” says Ethan.

It’s been a game of patience to get from the idea of becoming banana growers, to the first planting.  Initially, they began by planting in their backyard at home.  Two years ago they attended a field day at the Duranbah trial site into varietal disease resistance, and they got a boost that sent them more firmly towards growth.

“The growers who were there were just so friendly and welcoming,” they agree.  “And we got to know David Peasely (researcher) and Matt Weinert (industry development officer – NSW Department of Primary Industries) there too.

“We really wouldn’t have been able to get far without their support,” they say as they stand overlooking their budding banana empire in the cane field country of Murwillumbah.

“David Pike in Coffs Harbour provided us with the suckers for the new planting, free of charge, as long as we went and dug them ourselves. He did need a bit of desuckering done so it helped all of us out. Without Matt putting us onto these suckers, and his help on a huge range of issues, we would not have been able to do banana farming from scratch.”

Long term, the McKeever brothers would like to move into transport and a sustainable ripening business.

To the side of their banana block they’ve built the Taj Mahal of chook pens and have a steady business selling eggs to locals.

“Whatever we do, we will be focussed on good customer service, and looking after people,” says Ethan.