Avoiding Slippery Mistakes With Bananas
Farmer's Weekly|April 23, 2021
The humble banana is usually taken for granted by consumers, but growing this popular fruit can be tricky, expensive and involve considerable risk. Having top-performing banana plantations starts with the proper establishment of the crop. Brothers Riaan and WJ Heystek shared their experiences of setting up their banana enterprise with Lloyd Phillips.
Lloyd Phillips

1: The people behind Heystek Farm Produce and its relatively new banana farming enterprise are (left to right) Riaan Heystek, his wife Lizelle, and his brother WJ. LLOYD PHILLIPS

A visit to the operational nerve centre of Heystek Farming, situated in the Pongola area of northern KwaZulu-Natal, reveals a highly organised and diversified farming operation that is clearly the pride of brothers Riaan and WJ Heystek. There are fields of irrigated sugar cane and green peppers, citrus orchards, banana plantations and cucumber tunnels.

2: Left: a sucker that has been selected to be the next mature banana plant. Middle: a mature banana plant that is yet to produce fruit. Right: the cut stem of a harvested banana plant that initially provided valuable nutrients to the middle plant while young.

3: The flower petals and leaves of the mature banana plant partially protect the fruit from sunburn.

Their father, Willie, established Heystek Farming, but today focuses on managing the farm’s finances, while Riaan and WJ run the operation. In addition, the pair manage a separate entity, Heystek Farm Produce (HFP), which they established in 2013 to farm mainly jam tomatoes.

Bananas, which the brothers first planted in December 2019, are HFP’s latest enterprise.

“We chose bananas because we know they grow well in Zululand’s subtropical climate,” explains Riaan. “They’re also very popular among fresh-produce hawkers. For years, we’ve been supplying our other fresh produce to local informal traders. We have a good business relationship with them, and they told us they’d be willing to buy our bananas.”

Riaan and WJ ploughed out the sugar cane fields closest to HFP’s ripening rooms and packhouse so that future banana harvests would not have to be transported far to these facilities. Bananas bruise easily, so the less they are handled, the less risk of the consumer ending up with unappealing fruit.

In addition, the soil of the ploughed-out sugar cane fields has a relatively high clay content (between 25% and 40%), a beneficial soil organic carbon content of 2% to 3%, and high water-holding capacity. Banana plants do well in such soil conditions.

MAKING A GOOD BED FOR BANANAS

“After harvesting the sugar cane, we let the field stand for approximately four weeks,” says WJ. “During this time, we irrigated it lightly to enable the sugar cane leaves to regrow so that we could apply glyphosate herbicide to the young plants.

“The glyphosate, which is systemic, kills whole sugar cane plants as well as any weeds growing in the fallow field before bananas are planted.”

The dying plants were then disced into the soil using a disc harrow. The decomposing plants helped improve soil structure and provide organic nutrients for the banana plants. Discing was followed by a subsoiler to loosen any compaction down to a depth of 600mm to improve aeration and moisture dispersion within the soil, and to enable the roots of the banana plants to grow unimpeded.

The soil was then disced again, and this was followed by a power harrow that created a fine soil tilth. The tilth was necessary for the important root-to-soil contact needed by the banana seedlings once they were transplanted into the field.

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