Far North Queensland banana grower Gavin Devaney could have easily ended up on the other side of the farming fence. Armed with an Honours Degree in Agricultural Science (Major in Rural Technology), the third- generation farmer was on the cusp of studying to become a veterinarian – until wife Andrea accepted a job as a teacher at Gavin’s old stomping ground in Innisfail. Lea Coghlan reports.
Gavin Devaney is passionate about growing bananas.
It drives everything he does on his family’s 101-hectare banana farm, Bartle Frere Bananas, in the tiny hamlet of Boogan, outside Innisfail.
“I’m 41 years old with at least another 20 years of doing what I want to do,” Mr Devaney said.
“I don’t want to do anything else but farm.
“I have two young boys who have been around the property their whole life, and if one of them wants to keep farming I hope the industry is here.
“It’s a good industry for the country – we don’t import bananas and we grow enough bananas in a few hundred kilometres to support the entire nation.”
Mr Devaney was destined for a life on the land, having watched his parents Bernie and Sandra build the family’s banana and cane farming business from scratch.
He credits his parents for instilling in him a passion and tenacity for farming.
Mr Devaney dropped out of school at 15 years
of age but returned to complete his secondary education and go on to university – as a mature age student.
“I did it the hard way,” Mr Devaney said.
“But in the end, I wanted it. I wasn’t forced into it.”
On completing their university degrees, Gavin and wife Andrea, parents to Quinn, 9, and Brady, 8, decided Andrea’s first teaching post would influence where they relocated to.
“If Andrea had been placed in Brisbane, I would have done veterinarian studies,” Mr Devaney said.
“If she got a job here then I would come back and given the farm a shot. She got an interview and a job at Good Counsel Primary School.”
While Mr Devaney had his own thoughts on farming, he spent the first several years on his return to the land in 2002 learning the growing side and an equal amount of time understanding that farming was a business.
Today, he runs the quality assurance, biosecurity and labour hire – the family employs up to 35 staff – while the growing and packing is overseen by his parents.
The Devaneys have been supplying supermarket giant, Aldi, for 12 years, a partnership that started at a time when the industry shifted from a B21 carton to 13kg open crate carton.
Aldi originally used the crates to display the bananas.
“We were one of the early adopters of the 13kg box,” Mr Devaney explained.
“They would wheel out pallets into the store, people would take out the bananas from the carton and then use our cartons to take the rest of their groceries home.”
It was this approach to reusable packaging that prompted the Devaneys to rebrand as Enviro- Choice – Earth’s Choice, a move that gave the family a strong foothold in the marketplace.
A self-described modern farmer, Mr Devaney embraces change.
“You can sit on the fence waiting for change but the fence can consume you,” he said.
“If you keep building with the fence you don’t get consumed by it.
“If you are in front of change you are not scared of it.”
When Panama tropical race 4 was first detected in Tully in 2015, Mr Devaney and his father agreed it was “all in or all out”.
“We had watched what other growers had gone through,” Mr Devaney said.
“We didn’t want to be locked down for six months, with millions of dollars’ worth of crops out in the paddock.”
Safeguarding the family farm from the greatest challenge facing the banana industry soon became front of mind as the Devaneys worked to protect their livelihood.
“We focussed on securing the farm to a minimum standard so if there is an incursion it’s only a week or so dealing with Biosecurity Queensland and then we can be operational again.”
The family’s Bombardieri Road farm, which they purchased in 1999, ticks all the boxes for biosecurity.
The farm is the last property on the road, with one limited-access entrance, allowing for almost total control over who enters and exits the property.
Anyone who needs to enter the farm on foot is required to sign-in, before walking through a foot race – essentially a sponge-lined foot bath filledwith approved disinfectant.
his leads to a colour-coded boot exchange area, where you must leave your shoes behind and put on a new pair supplied by the Devaneys and only used on-site.
All farm vehicles and machinery stay on their property, and petrol or diesel is delivered via a hose over the fence.
The property was once a thoroughfare for feral pigs, but that population has been seriously dented thanks to fencing and floodgates.
Mr Devaney believes growers are better off implementing measures to protect their farms while they have a cash flow and steady supply of product.
“For about $1000/acre you can secure yourself quite well,” he said.
“We can sit here and believe that Tully can lock Tully up.
“But it’s inevitable that TR4 will spread so it’s up to growers to secure themselves and ensure they keep ‘what’s out’ out.
“That’s always been my focus.”
Recently, the Devaneys purchased an adjoining 26 ha cane farm – it is currently being planted out with bananas – this time as a means of securing water.
Mr Devaney has invested considerable time and effort into engineering the new farm to reduce his environmental impact and improve the quality of water run-off (see breakout).
Point of difference
Mr Devaney is always looking for that edge.
He packs off a packing wheel – as opposed to transferring product across a belt from a trough system – and said this helped him meet Aldi’s product specifications when the supermarket giant first established itself in the industry.
“They wanted three different sizes of bananas in the pack and we were able to achieve this off the wheel system,” Mr Devaney explained.
Meeting the market is front of mind, and earlier this year he launched trials into three different pack sizes, one targeting the lunchbox sized banana market.
“We are trying to offer a variety of different sized bananas to the supermarket and independent grocers to allow consumers to shop as they want to,” Mr Devaney explained.
“It gives consumers a choice.”
Mr Devaney believes farmers use every means available to produce a quality product.
“There are no shortcuts anymore,” he said. “People that string their crop do it for a reason –
they might farm in a windy part of the country or are trying to get a little weight in the fruit for a certain market.
“A grower might use a cloth bag because they suffer bag rub.”
A bright future
Despite the pest and disease challenges and natural disaster threats, Mr Devaney is excited about the future.
“We grow crops nine months out, not knowing
if a storm is going to flatten you, not knowing if a cyclone is going to come around the corner and not knowing if you have a market for the fruit,” he said.
“You can grow a crop all year and then have to sell it for $8 a carton, and don’t even get your costs back.
“But we continue to do it because its instilled in us.
“If the industry can secure itself against disease I believe there is a bright outlook for the future.”
By Skye Orsmond, Terrain NRM
Mr Devaney is converting the adjoining 26-ha cane paddock into a best practice banana farm with innovative water quality runoff solutions.
Earthworks on the property, which is beside the Bruce Highway, south of Innisfail, have attracted plenty of attention.
“People thought I was subdividing the land with the amount of earthworks happening,” Mr Devaney said.
His aim is to improve the farm’s layout and reduce its environmental impacts while also maintaining productivity and profitability.
Supported by industry representative body Australian Banana Growers’ Council and the Wet Tropics Major Integrated Project (WTMIP), the Devaneys have implemented a combination of best management practice principles and innovative drainage solutions.
Mr Devaney said water quality was front of mind from word go.
He met the cost of implementing the detailed design while allowing the WTMIP to utilise approximately two acres of productive land to trial an innovative in-drain wetland design on his farm.
An in-drain wetland system replicates the same nitrogen removal process that occurs naturally in a wetland, as well as the potential to remove sediment.
MIP Johnstone Basin Coordinator Sandra Henrich said that many growers in the Johnstone region were implementing practices to improve
their farms in line with best management principles.
“We always knew that it would be the growers who would devise locally relevant solutions to improve water quality,” she said. “Their region is one of a kind and their solutions need to follow suit.
“They say necessity is the mother of invention. Farmers have been inventors for almost 100 years – the MIP respects that skill and ingenuity and supports growers to trial what they know will work.”
The Wet Tropics Major Integrated Project is funded by the Queensland Government through the Queensland Reef Water Quality Program.