DARRELL & BRUCE MUNRO
When Bruce and Darrell Munro met, little could they know what lay ahead for them both. Darrell had been living on a banana plantation since the age of two, but for Bruce, it was a whole new ballgame.
“I was a mechanic in Perth where I met Darrell, and we moved up to Carnarvon together in 1974,” says Bruce from the flower-filled veranda of his banana plantation.
Running a banana plantation at that point wasn’t an option – Bruce spent his days fixing up and selling cars but once they had children – three energetic boys – the couple thought buying a plantation might be a good idea to keep everybody occupied.
“Initially we just worked on the plantation on weekends,” says Bruce, “but after a year or so, we moved to the plantation full time. We thought it would be fun for the boys to grow up on a plantation – and it was a really great place to raise kids.”
The Carnarvon area had enjoyed a thriving banana-growing industry since 1928 (although there are records of bananas being grown as far back as the 1840s) and its success (or failure) was only limited by a reliable water supply.
“These days, everybody uses micro-sprinklers under the trees to conserve water but when I started out, it was more basic, with flood irrigation which wasted a lot.”
Although Darrell had grown up around bananas, Bruce was a complete novice when it came to cultivating the fruit. He wasted no time learning as much as he could.
“It was 1980 and I asked lots of questions to help me learn, it was very hands-on,” remembers Bruce. “The market was very good and you could make a good living out of growing bananas. Fortunately it’s quite a forgiving crop but I soon found out that bananas don’t like heatwaves.”
For years, Darrell ran the packing shed, processing over 10,000 bananas each week.
The weather would always be a farmer’s best – or worst – friend, with extremes proving to be almost too much to manage. To try to offset not only the vagaries of the weather, but also the threat to the WA banana industry posed by the north Queensland crop which flooded the market, the Munros along with other banana growers, founded the Sweeter Banana co-operative in 1993.
By the early 1990s, says Bruce, ‘the industry was dying.’
“We were getting hammered by the Queensland banana growers and their big bananas,” says Bruce. “So we got together and came up with the idea of a co-operative, producing our naturally smaller, sweeter bananas and branding it all under one name. They were all packaged up together too.
“The idea was to develop a recognisable brand so that Perth consumers could identify and purchase their banana of choice, the Carnarvon Sweeter Banana,” says Bruce.
The co-operative is owned and operated by 25 farmers all on family run farms on the banks of the Gascoyne River. Another advantage to being part of the collective would be extremely beneficial after Cyclone Olwyn roared into Carnarvon, decimating an entire year’s harvest of fruit – and bananas.
“In 2015, along with so many other growers, we lost 100% of the crop in Cyclone Olwyn.”
The category 3 cyclone slammed into the town, 900km north of Perth, in March 2015 ripping roofs off homes, uprooting dozens of trees and destroying banana plantations. Gusts of winds up 146km/h lashed the town and its surrounds, knocking over more than 50 power poles and leaving thousands without power.
At one stage more than 3,500 homes were blacked out in Carnarvon and 1,700 more in Exmouth.
“Fortunately, $2.5million was paid out in insurance from our co-operative’s self-managed fund, allowing us to start again.”
Up until the Sweeter Banana co-operative, it was very hard for Carnarvon growers to get their product into supermarkets because supermarkets like Coles would have to get them from 20 different growers.
By streamlining the process and supplying Coles and other big brands from one source, Sweeter Bananas changed everything for the partner growers.
“Once Coles were on board, that really made a point of difference,” says Bruce.
For years, Darrell ran the packing shed, processing over 10,000 bananas each week. That’s all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it is to mechanise the process of packaging without damaging the tender skinned fruit. Nowadays, that side of the operation is run by Sandy, an impressively-organised young woman from Taiwan who makes sure the packing shed runs like clockwork.
“Sandy’s so wonderful – she’s allowed us to step back from the day to day operations,” says Bruce, who is enjoying retirement these days.
He admits that in the early days of the co-operative, he ‘made it up as he went along’ but always took Saturdays off to be with his kids. For 13 years, he also ran a tourism café and despite the ups and downs of running a plantation, the fruit just ‘keeps coming and coming’.
Nowadays, Sweeter Bananas are a well-known addition to many people’s weekly shopping routine, the small fruit the perfect addition to lunchboxes across WA.
“We need around 200,000 cartons a year to keep up with demand,” says Bruce. “Initially, they said it wouldn’t work to bag the Carnarvon bananas because they’re a bit more marked but now everybody does it. Having said that, we’re always looking at new packaging solutions.”
The turnaround from picking bananas to the fruit arriving in shops can be as quick as a week, with an ideal storage temperature of 13 degrees key to keeping them in optimum condition.
Despite stepping back from the daily operations of running Munro’s plantation, Bruce and Darrell want to continue living on the picturesque property.
“I’d like to keep doing some jobs around the farm but no planting – that’s too hard,” smiles Bruce. “We have a team for do all the harvesting and planting – the whole lifecycle takes 15 to 18 months, and we produce 11 million bananas per year on 18 hectares.”