Commercial crops of bananas are the aim of Bananas of New Zealand Aotearoa (Bonza).
Four Northland growers have set up the organisation to spread the word about what they believe are the huge potentials for growing a banana industry in New Zealand.
One day they would like to see New Zealand bananas sold in supermarkets.
Director Brian Slade, of Maungatapere, west of Whangārei, says bananas have always been a viable crop in frost-free areas of New Zealand.
• Northland dairy farmers find bananas 'apeeling'
"However, New Zealand used to always import from the Pacific islands, so a banana industry here was never developed.
"All the cultivars are already existing in New Zealand and we are conducting trials to find the best ones for commercial cropping,'' he says.
The other three directors of Bonza are Geoffrey Mansell, also of Maungatapere, Royce Macbeth of Taipuha and David Colley of Pataua.
The men met through being members of the Tropical Fruitgrowers Association and all became interested in growing bananas.
They say bananas grow best in temperatures between 27 and 30 degrees.
They prefer a frost-free site and are best planted on north to north-east facing areas where the land is not too steep as this affects the ability to harvest safely.
Brian says the Misi Luki variety, which is better known as Lady Finger, is the best known banana commonly grown by home gardeners.
"These are small and sweet and, when we were doing our research, almost all the plants we found being grown in back gardens around Whangārei are of this variety,'' Brian says.
"They are quite thin skinned, which makes them a difficult variety to transport and potentially grow as a commercial crop although they sell well at farmer's markets.''
There are hundreds of banana cultivars in the world, but the only variety sold in New Zealand supermarkets is the Cavendish, which is imported from the Philippines and Ecuador.
The members of Bonza are conducting trials with different varieties, to try and find the best for New Zealand conditions.
Some varieties taste like pineapple, while others taste of lemon or are creamy, but all are delicious, they agree.
Meanwhile, they are trying to encourage anyone with suitable conditions to cultivate their own love affair with this sweet sub-tropical fruit.
"The advantages we have is that people already love bananas. We need to encourage people to eat and enjoy the different flavours of our local fruit,'' says Geoff.
"New Zealanders eat 72,000 tonnes per year, or about 18kg per person.
"If we can try and tap into that market, there is huge potential for a local banana industry,'' he says.
Another advantage is that bananas have no known pests in New Zealand, apart from plants being highly sought by pūkeko which love to nip off the new shoots. Livestock should be kept away from bananas unless being used as a forage crop.
Brian says overseas growers have to contend with monkeys, fruit bats and fruit flies, but those challenges are not present in New Zealand.
"They don't need spraying either. They are really easy care and perfect for any land owners wanting to diversify or owners of lifestyle blocks,'' he says.
"They are much easier to look after than animals.''
Bananas are self-fertile, and are gross feeders so do require fertiliser.
While irrigation is an advantage, Brian does not water his plantation at Whatitiri and the 18-month-old trees have weathered the drought well. Mulch is important, he says.
Once the bunches of bananas start to form, it is recommended they are protected in a bag from the attentions of possums or rats and birds. This will also reduce marking and wind rub on fruit and enhance bunch filling for brighter, fresher fruit and increased finger size.
The weight of the banana bunch can mean the trees need to be supported.
The first part of the bunch as it forms has the female flowers which become bananas, while the male or "bell" part of the flower will be removed.
Grown from rhizomes, the banana plantation usually is managed to contain three stems to form each clump, "the magic number of three being the main stem, or mother, the daughter stem and grand-daughter stem". Once the oldest stem has fruited, it will die off to be replaced by the others.
The large bunches are then sliced into "hands", usually about five to 10 bananas, which have been fetching up to $6 at Northland markets.
Brian says another variety which shows potential is the plantain, which is commonly grown in South America and is used as a vegetable which can be boiled or fried like potato.
Bananas fruit randomly all year round, depending on temperature, though it can be difficult for one grower to have a consistent crop in large enough numbers to be commercially viable, Geoff says.
"We envisage growers forming a cluster to be able to supply regular markets,'' Geoff says.
Bonza held its first field day at the weekend, and directors are developing tissue culture and plantation advice businesses to boost the young industry.