Estela Scott stands in front of her battered banana plantation, a storm having moved through the Gascoyne just the day before. Jumping back to storms that hit the region three months prior, Scott remembers that “visibility was like five metres in front of you. It was just red, a massive dust storm. There hadn’t been rain for most of the year, it was May and all the bananas just got loosened up at the roots and then so many fell, so many got scratched up, and then no leaves, and bananas really need leaves. It all got pummeled. And now they were just coming back after three months. So this is all drying out again. They just really need their leaves.”
Scott, with her husband Rob are part of the Sweeter Banana co-operative. “You’re not just one little grower here and there sending to market,” she says. “You’re twenty families going, all right, we’re going to give this a good crack.” Scott recalls that when she was growing up Carnarvon bananas didn’t have the reputation they do today. “We had Queensland bananas in Carnarvon,” she says with an air of disbelief. The difference in attitudes to the smaller, thinner skinned Carnarvon bananas she says isn’t about promotion, but education, “that small bananas are better.”
“I can honestly tell you what makes our Carnarvon bananas the best,” says Scott of a product that’s renowned for its sweeter, creamier taste and texture.
“It’s the sunshine, good water and we’ve just got really good soil. It takes so much longer to grow [18 months as opposed to 9 in Queensland]. They’re just natural and because ours take so much longer and under so much more stress the plant takes every nutrient and puts it into that fruit. Whereas in Queensland it rains every day; it doesn’t appreciate water as much as ours does.” Pushing the Western Australia v. Queensland contest that little bit further Scott says with a laugh, “and our sunshine is better.”
Available throughout the state, Sweeter Bananas have transformed the reputation of a once maligned product while cutting down on their waste. Scott says that at one time that could be 50%, but with the marketing of their popular banana bread line and smoothie packaging, things have changed. “The smoothie range has been heaven sent,” she says. “It’s clearly marked that this isn’t your top grade, but you can still use it, essentially the same but it just doesn’t look like what you want it to look like.”
Life as a grower precarious. “I think sometimes we’re better off going to the casino and putting all our money on red than doing what we do,” says Scott. “Because we’re just in the hands of nature. It’s really been on my mind the last six months. You can handle any natural disaster, but you’ve got other things in your way, like government policy or bureaucracy that stops you from being a small business grower in Australia. They make it so hard for you. I can take any cyclone, any flood, any plague. But when you just have someone going, I’m going to make life difficult for you. That’s the bit that discourages you from growing.”
Water is increasingly the pressing issue for growers across Australia. Frustrated with bureaucracy and control around water Scott says “we’re not taking from our neighbours, we’re not over pumping, we’re just not. We regulate ourselves.” Scott apologises at points for pushing the point but the effect of bureaucracy on small farming families is a common theme with growers whether in the Gascoyne or elsewhere.
Estela Scott was born on Madeira Island in the volcanic Madeira archipelago, a Portuguese settlement off the coast of north Africa. “I just admire how brave my parents were. They came here with three little girls. I think they had just four suitcases and an accordion,” says Scott who as a child worked on the plantation her parents bought in 1996. She highlights the lessons her parents taught her. “On Maderia Island you had to be smart with your block of land. You can’t just be thrashing it with chemicals; your water was also allocated; you had to be smart with what you put in. Mum and Dad came here in the late 1980s. They brought that sort of growing here, that mentality, and, you know, you’ve got to be smart with what you’ve got.” This is Scott’s more subtle message that growers often know best; that it can feel like bureaucracy is structured to work against not with them.
Rob Scott’s family have been in Carnarvon since the 1950s. “They were one of the first Italian families to grow bananas. Rob is a city boy who came to Carnarvon every school holiday to see his nonno and nonna. He did his apprenticeship in Perth, worked in the mines and then he’d had enough and worked with uncle Gerry next door for two years and then this came up for sale.”
As we talk Estela Scott holds her youngest son Leo. Does she hope that he and his brother will be fourth generation Carnarvon growers I ask.
“I hope there’s an opportunity for them to do it, and want to do it,” she says. “But I hope there will be better circumstances for them.”
This content was produced in partnership with the Gascoyne Food Council and the Gascoyne Food Festival.