Sunday, 15 December 2013

COOL BANANAS

8th-9th Dec 2013


Bananas


Battledore Farm, the home of Cool Bananas, comprises 1500 acres of relatively flat forested countryside of which 200 acres have been cleared for the banana plantation. As well as our host ( Boss 1 ) there are two most civilised and amusing young Brits working on the farm as assistants.  

Left: The 'assistants', Tom and Sam are working here as part of a Gap Year after Newcastle University. Tom goes to Sandhurst in May and Sam, before Xmas, to the family estate in Herefordshire ( which amongst other things produces very fine wine: ( look up: broadfieldcourt.co.uk ).

They took me, by motorbike ( self-drive and more about that later ) on a tour of the plantation. I was given a most comprehensive explanation on the technicalities of growing bananas. I now consider myself a world expert on the subject and will proceed to bore you with my recently acquired knowledge. 
The first thing one realises is that banana production is vastly labour intensive. The trees require constant work such as 'propping'  to stop the heavy bunches breaking the trunk, 'weeding'  to prevent strong weed growth taking the nutrients, 'suckering' to remove all but one selected sucker growth, which develop en-mass around the base , into the next tree...only one bunch from each tree... and the old one is cut down and the next, the first ratoon, produces the next crop etc. etc, pruning the 'bells' at the end of the forming bunches, irrigation, fertilisation, constant spraying of insecticide to prevent aphids spreading the lethal banana disease 'Banana Bunchy Top Virus', harvesting ( an all year-round task ), storing and ripening, packing, transport, engineering, equipment maintenance, marketing plus all the associated administrative, accounting, personnel and logistic tasks. 

Right: A tree being 'propped' by a string attached at the correct angle to an overhead tensioned wire to keep the trunk upright ( not so successfully here ). The strings need constant adjustment or the branch will snap and the bananas die. This is a task which requires a degree of geometric understanding and does not come naturally to the local workforce.



Left: The 'bell' ( the dark bit ) at the base of a forming bunch. This absorbs all the nutrients and has to be removed when about 10 rows of banana 'hands' have formed sufficiently so that they will grow to optimum  size and prevent small and unproductive baby bananas growing underneath.
















A workforce of about 400 locals plus 4 Bosses, 17 supervisors and a farm manager operate the plantation. Another workforce is busy planting a eucalyptus forest elsewhere on the farm which will not mature for a further 10 years but, if successful, will be highly profitable. Other crops such as maize are also due to be started. Much more clearing of the land is due to take place. Giant 30 ft high ancient ant hills are prolific and need to be levelled. Hard work.

Right: The ebullient farm manager, Titus Millions, from Zimbabwe.

One of the problems with local labour here appears to be rather an African one. The workers tend to work until their pay-day then they take time off to spend their money. They come back to work when skint. The concept of working to save money is alien. It is therefore a bit of a lottery as to how many will turn up on any day. 400 is the minimum required ( and many more would be ideal ) but sometimes only about 200 turn up! Somewhat frustrating I imagine.
This combines with an inability to 'incentivise' the workforce by offering bonuses for added productivity or explaining that if they learn how to operate more skilfully and efficiently more bananas will be harvested and all will be better off. Technical skill in operating machinery is also problematic, and lacking, and requires constant supervision. Unless spotted by a 'Boss', machinery will be driven to destruction before a fault is identified or reported. Vastly expensive and even more frustrating.

The plantation consists of about 140,000 trees divided up into 10 blocks ( named, amusingly, after Wellington's commanders ). Each block is subdivided into 4 sections of about 105 X 32 trees. I reckoned it would keep two people busy full time just to maintain efficiently one line of 105 trees ( there are over 1280 such lines in total ). My maths might be at fault, but I can't see how they do it with the workforce available.











Right: Looking over a section of the plantation towards the 'dam' ( lake ) which provides water for pumped irrigation. Fertilizer is added into the supply here. Another expensive requirement. This pic taken from the top of the one remaining ant-hill observation post.
The whole plantation is surrounded by a protective razor-wire fence and anti-aphid screen.



Left: The harvested bunches are transported from throughout the plantation to the processing and storage sheds by a complex pulley system, like a horizontal ski-tow.

By the way, I am informed that a banana is a 'berry' not a 'fruit'. Something to do with the way its seeds grow.

OK, that's the end of my tedious technical brief done for my own benefit if not for your amusement.


I think that takes us to Sunday Lunch, for eleven, which started at 12.30pm and finished at 9.00pm. A fairly gargantuan feast of roast beef etc. in true colonial style. Several local ex-pat neighbours in attendance and much wine taken. Many ex-Zimbabwian farmers, Australians and South Africans earn a living in Zambia. 

When this photo was snapped Gazza had shuffled off for a 'mid-prandial' kip. He reappeared later and probably regretted it because he consequently suffered from a 'Severe Daintry Hangover' ( SDH ) which further incapacitated him for the whole of the next day.

It is refreshing to note that, at this stage, there has been no sign in town or on farm of any Christmas decorations, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Bloody Jingle bells or any other sign of Festive  Razzmatazz. Long may it continue.

There has been a slight hiatus to this blog caused by a little mishap which will be described in boring detail next...........

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