60 Years of ABGC

Sixty years ago, the Australian Banana Growers’ Council was formed.

In the time since, its dealt with challenges like pest and disease incursions, natural disasters, expansion and the COVID-19 health pandemic, pivoting where necessary, while never losing sight of its primary goal to advance the interests of Australia’s commercial banana growers through effective leadership, advocacy and representation to ensure a strong industry future.

Here, we take a look back on the past six decades, starting by sitting down with several past and current board chairs and a past director, who have led the organisation through some of the most challenging times.

Ray Everingham (NSW) 1970-81


Pictured: Ray Kratz, chairman (NSW) 1960s, Bill Singleton, chairman (NSW) 1980s and Ray Everingham, chairman (NSW) 1970s.

Mr Everingham was a director of the the ABGC board for 15 years, six of those as chairman.

He nominates the development of a banana clearance scheme as a highlight of his association with the ABGC.

“More than 90 per cent of the Australian production in the early 1970s was produced in the sub- tropical areas of northcoast of NSW and southeast Queensland,” Mr Everingham said. “Bananas

were mainly planted on hillsides to avoid frost. Production was from family units and plantings were usually less than four hectares.”

Mr Everingham said production in winter was low while summer production often resulted in chronic over supply, with both impacting grower returns.

“In the late 1960s, the ABGC commissioned a study to investigate the effect of supply on grower returns,” Mr Everingham said. “The ABGC then recommended supply control mechanisms during periods of over-supply.

“The board subsequently implemented a minimum price clearance scheme. A levy was imposed on all fruit consigned to market with the funds raised used to purchase excess supply from the markets at the minimum price.

“This purchased fruit was then distributed as livestock food.”

The scheme operated from 1970 to the early 1980s.

A national advertising program was developed to increase consumption. This was funded by banana growers and banana merchants.

Mr Everingham said organisations like the ABGC were critical in representing the interests of all growers.

“In the early days, the smaller grower had no bargaining power and the only power they had was through their organisation,” Mr Everingham said. “Now the industry consists of large growers that have end to end arrangements direct with supermarkets.

Len Collins, (Qld) 1993-99

When Len Collins, a Tully banana grower, stepped down as chair of the ABGC in the late 1990s his work was far from done.

The Australian banana industry was just starting the fight of its life against the threat of banana imports from the Philippines.

Mr Collins took up the fight, together with former CEO Tony Heidrich, helping the ABGC mount a campaign and leave no stone unturned to protect the Australian industry.

“It was a 10-year fight and I spent 50 per cent of my time for 10 years on the campaign,” Mr Collins said.

“We raised $2 million for the campaign from growers which allowed us to hire the best of everything – the best scientist in every field including the best biometrician.

“If the Philippines bought bananas into Australia, our industry would have been a lot different now, if we had one.”

Mr Collins said the campaign fought the threat of imports on four fronts – science, legal, public relations and political – with its success firmly attributed to the funding support from growers.

Mr Collins was also at the helm of the ABGC when an incursion of oriental fruit fly (then known as papaya fruit fly) was discovered near Cairns in 1995, resulting in a 70,000 km2 pest quarantine area and a $33.5 million, four-year eradication campaign.

Mr Collins said the ABGC was successful in securing support from Victoria and New South Wales to reopen borders to fruit supplies from Queensland, with other states following shortly after.

“To me the ABGC is very important to handle the big issues that pertain to the banana industry,” Mr Collins said. “The campaign against imports and maintaining a watching brief on this issue is one of the most important things that they still need to do.”

Cameron Mackay (Qld), 2009-2011

Pictured (L-R) ABGC Chair at the time (2011) Cameron Mackay shows Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard cyclone damage following TC Yasi, with former ABGC Chair Patrick Leahy.

Cameron Mackay will never forget 2011.

Tropical Cyclone Yasi crossed the coast near Mission Beach in February 2011 and brought the industry’s largest banana growing region to its knees. TC Yasi destroyed around 80 per cent of Australia’s banana crops and cost the industry around $350 million.

“It was by far the biggest challenge for me at the time,” said Mr Mackay, who was nearing the end of his two terms as board chair when cyclone hit.

“The ABGC played a critical role in securing government funding for growers in the damage area to make sure businesses could survive through to a return to production.

“There was a significant amount of political work done, a large amount of it in the background to put together a package to see growers come out the other side.

“I think we got the majority of growers through that period and out to the other side.

“The package offered everyone the opportunity to continue to farm if they felt they wanted to.”

The organisation’s role in responding to the TC Yasi typified the vital role peak industry bodies play in the agricultural landscape.

“Organisations like the ABGC are essential agri- politically wise,” Mr Mackay said.

“They are a must if you want to talk to government at an industry level.

“Peak industry bodies are a great vehicle to open those doors to government and government departments.”

Mr Mackay said it was important that the ABGC never lost sight of its main purpose, that is, to advocate to government and maintain the industry’s reputation in Australian agriculture.

Doug Phillips (Qld), 2011-16

ABGC CEO Jim Pekin (left) and former ABGC Chair Doug Phillips outside DPI Head Office in Brisbane following the first detection of TR4 in the Tully Valley in 2015.

When the first incursion of the soil-borne disease Panama Tropical Race 4 was detected on a Tully Valley banana farm in early 2015, life for then ABGC board chair Doug Phillips changed dramatically.

The South Johnstone grower juggled farming with high level government negotiations and media callouts as the ABGC navigated unchartered water in response to the biosecurity threat.

“The ABGC played a critical role in the industry’s response to TR4,” Mr Phillips recalled.

“We were the face of the industry not only to government and other industry partners but also back to growers.

“We were the conduit for information to growers and that was absolutely critical in the early days.

“It was so important that early on growers had access to the latest information because it was a highly stressful developing situation.

Mr Phillips said the industry’s success in containing TR4 was largely attributed to the work done by the ABGC.

“We pushed hard, we convinced growers that they needed to put
on on-farm biosecurity and that containment was the prime strategy,” Mr Phillips said.

“We convinced the Federal Government to buy the farm (where the first incursion was detected).

“All of those things were the result of the ABGC in the public place and in the background, working hard in the best interests of growers.”

Mr Phillips said the ABGC’s response to the Banana Freckle incursion in the Northern Territory was another example of how hard it fights for growers.

“Together with Plant Health Australia, the Federal Government and Northern Territory Government, we defined an eradication program that resulted in Banana Freckle being successfully eradicated,” Mr Phillips said.

“No-one anywhere in the world has been able to do that before.”

Mr Phillips said issues like biosecurity threats, imports and natural disasters would continue to challenge the industry.

“The industry will always need to maintain strong leadership and that’s the role of the ABGC.

“When you have those issues you need an organisation like the ABGC that work in the background, serve as the public face and position the industry in front of government to make sure support is delivered in critical times.”

Stephen Lowe (Qld), 2016 to present

Current ABGC chair Stephen Lowe was so impressed with the quality of people in the organisation he joined the board.

“You can’t have an organisation without a good group of people and that’s what led me to join the ABGC,” Mr Lowe said.

“It’s pretty hard not to mention TR4 when I reflect on my time as chair.

“I wasn’t on the board for very long before the detection and have been on the journey for the whole time.”

Mr Lowe said general industry viability has been another challenge in recent years.

“Our industry is in a solid position, however, there are definitely growers that have struggled to make money,” Mr Lowe said.

“We are not going to have a strong industry if growers aren’t making money so that is definitely a challenge for our organisation and industry.”

Mr Lowe said the ABGC’s overarching role was to support a viable and profitable industry.

More recently, the COVID-19 health pandemic has delivered a gamut of new challenges for the organisation.

“Like other businesses in Australia we were faced with the challenge of continuing to work as a group, without face-to-face meetings,” Mr Lowe said.

“Fortunately, technology had advanced enough to be able to bring people together and while we thought it was going to be an insurmountable challenge it’s proved otherwise.

“The bigger impact has been on growers being able to secure a reliable workforce and the ABGC has worked tirelessly with government and other industry groups to help with that.”

Mr Lowe said the ABGC gave growers a chair at the table and a direct link to government.

Tom Day, Western Australian banana grower and former ABCG board director

Mr Day said despite being a small industry, the Western Australian banana growers appreciated being part of the ABGC.

“Our involvement with the whole-of- industry organisation has delivered enormous benefits to Western Australian growers,” Mr Day said.

“By being involved in the ABGC, we have been able to keep imports out and address biosecurity threats.

“That’s great for our growers.”