BANANA growers have been told that it is possible to live with the crop disease, Panama Tropical Race 4, but it's hard work.
Discussion of the disease took plenty of focus at last month's Australian Banana Industry Congress at the Gold Coast, with Panama TR4 having been detected in Tully since 2015.
While the technical, on-farm details of battling the disease were discussed, growers also shared the emotional and psychological toll of dealing with it.
Delegates heard from Darwin Fruit Farms farm manager, Mark Smith.
Panama TR4 has been present in the Northern Territory officially since 1997 when a case was confirmed at a farm 50km away from where Mr Smith was working.
By 2006, there was only one (the Darwin Fruit Farms property) of the nine original commercial banana farms still operating in the NT.
"It's a heartbreaker just watching healthy trees die. You know why but it doesn't get any easier even after 20 years, it still hits you all the time," Mr Smith said.
The business currently has about 40 hectares (100 acres) of bananas, plus 30,000 Honey Gold mango trees and about 4 million pineapple plants.
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Mr Smith gave an outline of the various trials and varieties which have been done in the area since the discovery.
He said as the realisation took hold that Panama TR4 was spreading, the team adopted an attitude of dealing with it rather than running from it.
"We thought, we might have a crack at this because it's not going to wipe us out straight away," he said.
Despite the quarantining of farms, the introduction of improved farm hygiene and stringent protocols, new infections kept being recorded and identified each week.
"We also had a lot of people saying they could cure it. We tried a lot of them and they were good products but did nothing to control Panama," he said.
There weren't many things Mr Smith and his team didn't try. From compost teas to tolerant plants to boiling material to raising the soil Ph, nothing made an impact.
Mr Smith noted one peculiar observation though.
"We've had dwarf off-types and I've never seen one come down with Panama. Maybe there's something in that?" he said.
He said strict biosecurity works but it only takes one breach, with animals only partly to blame.
"Pigs and buffalo are bad (at spreading the disease) but humans are the worst," he said.
"I can't see panama not moving into other growing areas."
Darwin Fruit Farms now ploughs out and replants bananas every year into fallow ground where possible.
"You have to regularly remove the irrigation and knock those plants in. You have to set up again and it costs. You have to do a lot more work," he said.
The Mackay experience
ONE of Australia's largest banana growers, the Mackay Farming Group was confirmed with a case of Panama TR4 in 2017.
Cousins Gavin and Stephen Mackay took part in the TR4 panel session at the Australian Banana Industry Congress.
Gavin Mackay said after the disease turned up in the Tully Valley in 2015, the company immediately started implementing biosecurity measures.
"People don't change overnight so you've got to start early on that sort of thing," he said.
He reflected on the support shown to both the business and family since the detection, plus the importance of having a united front.
"We all stuck together," Mr Mackay said.
"We knew that it was a big job and we knew we couldn't do it on our own. Any help that was offered we accepted.
"We won't beat this thing but we'll find a way around it."
Plan of attack
MARK Smith encouraged growers to engage their staff, including pickers and packers, to be alert.
"If your staff don't find it - get new ones. They are looking at trees every day," he said.
"Moving plant material - you don't do it. That's the key."
It was a strategy endorsed by Gavin Mackay who said no plant material left or entered their farms, and traffic was limited.
"Your staff, you've got to have them on side. They are your eyes and ears. They are your biggest asset. If they know what's going on, they'll help you," he said.
"Listening to Mark, it sounds like we are in a honeymoon period at this point so we'll make it go for as long as we can."
Having listened to the various research talks during the Congress, Mr Smith said he had had a boost of confidence going forward.
"I didn't realise there was so much work going on behind the scenes," he said.
Mr Mackay agreed the work was promising.
"Absolutely you have to be encouraged. There is a lot of work going on," he said.
"The more people working on a problem, the more chances there are of finding a solution."
A resistant or highly tolerant, commercially viable banana plant to replace the Cavendish is the only way forward, according to Mr Smith.
An international perspective
FORMER north Queensland banana grower turned special project manager for Fyffes Bananas International at Costa Rica, Marc Jackson, said living with Panama TR4 was accepted as the norm where he worked.
He said growers in Costa Rica regularly rotated bananas with pineapples and papaya but banana production in other countries did not have the same quarantine vigilance as Australia.
"It has surprised me how quickly it has spread," Mr Jackson said.
In one instance, Mr Jackson said he watched a 3000ha plantation being established at Hainan, an island province of China, at the cost of $50 million.
"The quality of the produce was good but they moved all equipment from China and within one year it was infected with TR4," Mr Jackson said.