Dianne and Frank are a ‘throwback’ breed of farmers; ‘What’s Old is New Again’. They farm more like their great grandparents might have, working hard to make a living from the land. But they are not just farmers they are trailblazers. Frank and Dianne Sciacca of Pacific Coast Produce are located near Innisfail in the heart of Queensland’s banana growing region.
Frank wanted to address the problems of farming with chemicals and all the issues associated with it. He also recognised the ecosystem was not in balance and wanted to get back to producing a banana that tastes the way a banana should. The hard work paid off with the launch of the Eco Banana we all know it by its distinctive red wax tip in the year 2000.
The difference in the Eco Banana having been grown the Ecoganic way means the natural sugars are higher, dry matter is higher, the fruit is more dense with a creamier flavor, because they don’t rush it for bulk production. The Eco Banana is allowed to mature and grow the way nature intended this fruit to grow.
The benefits of bananas grown the Ecoganic way are numerous, with one being that it’s better for the environment and the other is that without added chemicals, you have a piece of fruit that is sweeter, creamier and has a better shelf life. That’s why Pacific Coast Produce has won so many awards and endorsements for a product that is far superior to other bananas currently on the market, as well as Farming and business practices that are more sustainable for future crops.
I wanted to know more about Dianne’s and Frank’s business so I had a lot of fun chatting with Dianne Sciacca and finding out a little more about being in a ‘niche market’ with Ecoganics.
Could you please give me a little background around Pacific Coast Eco Bananas?
We’ve been working on environmental management systems of farming with trials of eco bananas starting in 1998 and putting our first product into the market place in 2000. At that point Frank knew he needed help back on the farm and I left my job at the local authority.
I look back on my first day back on the farm in 2001; I didn’t think there would be enough work for me to do. It’s been a busy twelve years and a roller coaster ride. Sometimes not even knowing if I was on the right track or whether I had gone too far down one road and I should have been on another.
It’s sort of trailblazing; when we first started doing this, the word environmental and farming we’re never spoken together. When we first started marketing the red tip, it was kind of a big joke; in our industry we were laughed at. Then when we didn’t disappear after 2-3 years people started to wonder what we were about. We went through a period of time where there was a lot of negativity about our product in the marketplace. Which chews up energy and resources when we should be focused on developing our marketing edge.
You are most famous for the red wax tip bananas; now you also have green and blue. Could you tell me a little more about that?
When we first started it’s was a bit of a shock to consumers that there was this Red mark on a banana. In some cultures Red is a positive thing and others it’s not. So we produced the Blue and the Green as well as the Red. We thought that the Green would actually be the most popular color, being an environmental color, though it didn’t turned out that way at all. We still use multi-colors because we found that we had a sporting club; for instance medical conferences whose color was Blue. They give away a Blue tip banana to guests as they register. For the last 2 years we have dipped them in pink for the Mothers Day Classic. The different colors have multiple uses but the core product color is Red. We found that for branding and identification at the point of sale, Red was definitely the better color.
Dianne I believe somebody tried to take your idea of the Red tipped banana and do it in another color. Could you please tell me a little more about that?
That has happened three times and so three times we had to seek legal counsel and take action. The last one was the biggest one because the company entered the commercial space. They had sent their products to the supermarket, because they were given the challenge to find a distinctive way to identify their fruit. They thought that using the wax was going to be the answer.
Though their bananas didn’t represent the same integrity or the meaning of what the Eco banana is. It would have destroyed my trademark and they still wouldn’t have succeeded in what they wanted to achieve anyway. But a lot of people lack a sound knowledge of marketing don’t understand that.
Dianne, what made Frank decide to go into framing Eco-bananas?
He had been farming sugar cane and we had trialed Tea Tree. One of the biggest problems with sugar cane which is ongoing, is the increasing import of fertilizers and chemicals where you end up with a sterile soil and your crop is then reliant upon synthetic fertilizer for nutrients and chemicals to protect it from insects.
The opportunity came; when the family business, which had the three brothers and nephews, decided to all go our separate ways. Frank said “I’m not farming the way I have farmed previously. I want to stop using these chemicals and I want to work out ways that I can be commercially sustainable”; and so we looked at organics.
Frank started messing around with using organic and synthetic products. He began removing chemicals that killed living organisms; chemicals like insecticides, nematicides and miticides. He was still looking at how he might be able to use some herbicides and fungicides by creating an ecosystem that was balanced. So even in organics, the philosophy is still mimicking commercial farming because it’s about using what’s deemed to be an organic product yet there’s no restriction on how much you use or how you use it. So for instance in growing organic bananas, they use citric acid and vinegar. This will kill all the grass because they still see grass and weeds as competitors of the crop and in doing so they’re still holding off the insect population for the next 3-6months. The organic philosophy may not have turned out very well. There are a lot of small organic farmers who use similar kinds of systems to those that we have developed with Ecoganics. But generally the larger commercial scale organic growers are still looking for high yields so they’re still using more organic fertilizers to try and attain that yield today; and that wasn’t what Fran intended. Frank wanted to be able to use products that weren’t going to interfere with the soil health and the ecosystem, yet somehow reach a point where it was commercially sustainable. After two years of doing that he was ready to launch.
Our first store was Norton’s in Leichardt. In Sydney and we had an overwhelming response in the early days to the product; and it grew quite quickly. It outgrew what we could supply. It was Franks dream to share the concept with other farmers who wanted to farm this way.
Whilst developing a system to document what we were doing I came across an environmental management system, ISO 14001. This was a documentation framework to use; that’s when we wrote the organic protocol that was a recipe for farming under Ecoganics. This enabled us to take other growers through the same process. We had real growth till the cyclone in 2006; and that interfered with the momentum and product because we only had one farm that escaped the cyclone, hence we didn’t have enough supply. Then came another cyclone in 2011 leaving nothing standing so we were completely out of the market place for 11 months.
What challenges did the cyclone present for the banana industry?
It really presented some challenges because at that time everybody in the supply chain was impacted. There were freight companies, agents, agriculture supply businesses whose primary business was bananas. So it wasn’t just the banana farm that suffered and had to adjust their business models, a lot of the agents are not purely focused on bananas. They grow citrus, kiwi fruit and avocados. A lot of freight companies have had to look for other types of freight. This has created problems for us as an industry. Especially for those of us in a niche market, because when you’re in niche marketing, you’re not sending multiple products. There’s nearly always plenty of product so if somebody needs extra fruit we basically just send the extra order. This was one of the key things we did in the beginning, but because of the extra cost of production; if we were to remain sustainable we needed to get more for the product. So were not able to maintain that minimum price due to the extra cost involved.
How did your business succeed in this market?
Business success is not luck. You must know your customer and know what they need. The economy is too tight for guesswork; it’s giving them what they need and getting it to the market place at the right time, and then it’s just hard work. There’s no business today where everything’s going go perfectly there will always be hiccups. I think it is endurance, strength and persistence. To me business success is about persistence, persistence, and persistence. When you get knocked down, you get up. It’s easy to give up and sometimes it’s so hard to keep going. I guess that Frank and I have that strength; any obstacle that they put in front of us deters neither of us.
Make sure you have all the information you need before you make decisions and then when you’re dealing with a problem whether it’s the employees, agents or retailers, it’s about delving into the root of the problem. It may be different than it first appears. Sometimes you need to work backwards.
When we first started marketing the product, I’ve always taken advantage of whatever professional development opportunities are available. I enrolled in a business degree course, only wanting to take a few units that would help me with the marketing of eco bananas. One of the subjects I took was Business Communication; that was a real turning point for me because what it made me realize that when we say things people hear what you say but they don’t interpret what you say the same way you meant it to be. I learnt the importance of active listening; maybe a little late because we had already been doing Eco’s for 13 years and I studied that subject about 5 years ago but I really wish I had known that concept a little earlier.
Another example is that in our marketing we did a lot of market research and 99% of the people (3000 to 4000), all kept saying the same thing. Though it wasn’t being reflected in our sales of Eco-bananas. I presented the information to my lecturer of the business research subject I was doing. He suggested I look at the theory of Fishbein and Ajzen; ‘the theory of reasoned action’ and therein lies your problem. It is about perceived value. Whilst people say they will pay more for an environmentally friendly product, what really emerged was that they believed that organic produce should cost less; because we don’t use fertiliser and chemicals then they being a ripped off. It was the biggest wake up call for me.
The challenge for us is how do we, with a niche market product, get a two page message to a consumer. How do you impart that amount of knowledge so that your consumers can make informed decisions. What they’re paying for is, protecting the environment now and there’s a cost associated with that. They’re paying for that now, not in 15 years’ time when we will have degraded our land so much that it won’t produce food anymore.
How are you marketing and getting the message across to the consumer?
We moved away from doing in-store demonstrations to doing food shows. We did the Good Food and Wine shows for many years up until Cyclone Yasi in 2011. The shows cost us between $11,000 & $14,000, so we have stopped doing them.
We have focused our marketing around face to face presentations, talking to the consumer and explaining the manufacturing process. In the last 6 months we’ve started developing posters that capture the key messages in photos; photos of the insects, the farm and with the message being no longer than 3-4 words. We are creating a story with a picture and a few critical words. We believe this will result in the light bulb moment for the consumer.
For more information go to www.eco-banana.com.au.