Growers Insights: Variety sells a bunch

American banana growers gain an edge with creative cultivars.

Katie Chafin with Praying Hands Bananas

For U.S. banana growers, variety is the way to make a profit.

Nicholas Larsen, owner of NK Lago Farms, on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, Fla., grows 34 different varieties of mini-bananas, bananas and plantains. “In Florida, growers sell bananas into profitable niche markets,” Larsen says. “Most of the banana acreage in the state is devoted to Thai bananas, popular in Asian markets.”

One of Larsen’s best-selling varieties is Hua Moa, a Hawaiian version that can be used green as a potato substitute. When ripe, the banana is sweet and creamy. Other top sellers include Goldfinger, “a sweet-tart five- to six-inch banana whose pulp doesn’t turn brown, making it perfect for banana pudding and fruit salad;” Mysore, a two- to three-inch ladyfinger banana “with floral aromatics and a delightful taste;” and FHIA-17, a seven- to eight-inch banana, bred for disease resistance, that “tastes like banana flavoring and does not brown,” Larsen says.

Farmers and gardening enthusiasts alike can find a large assortment of unusual cultivars (modern varieties that are typically descendants of two wild banana species) from a nursery known for cultivating unique plants, Katie’s Going Bananas, in Homestead, Fla. “We have one of the largest banana cultivar collections—if not in the world, then in the United States,” says Don Chafin, owner-operator along with his wife, Katie. The Chafins ship more than 90 banana cultivars all over the world to people who want to grow the fruit in genuine, or simulated, tropical conditions.

Transportation costs hinder mainland business for Lynn Marie Richardson and her husband, Lynn Paul Richardson, owners of Ola’a Banana Co., in Oahu, Hawaii. The Richardsons farm 35 acres of the most familiar worldwide banana variety, Cavendish. “High shipping costs and relatively low West Coast pricing make it difficult to compete on the mainland,” Lynn Marie says. “We grow a little more than half of what Hawaii consumes.”

Exporting niche varieties to the mainland seems more feasible. Lynn Marie names fellow growers, the Tarring family of Ohana Banana Farm, as an example. Since the mid-’80s, they’ve been selling their tangy-sweet variety, Hawaiian Candy Apple Bananas, which are shipped via FedEx to the mainland the first Tuesday of every month.

State of the industry

While selling the popular Cavendish outside of Hawaii isn’t viable for the Richardsons, the overall industry is better than it was 20 years ago. Lynn Marie recalls an overabundance of bananas in the 1990s that caused many farmers to give up, but says, “Locally grown food has value nowadays. Proximity to the market and higher prices worldwide are making banana farming viable now.”

The Richardsons produced 927,000 pounds in 2013. “Price is generally by carton, and a 40-pound carton of Cavendish brings $25.50 or 64 cents per pound.”

Larsen sells to both local consumers and retailers. “I generally earn 75 cents to $1 per pound, depending on the variety and to whom I am selling,” he says. Katie Chafin’s fruit retails for a bit more, between $1 to $1.50 per pound. She notes, however, that the retail price for bananas hasn’t increased since its introduction to the American public. “Although bananas were first introduced to the American consumer in 1876 and sold for 10 cents each, they don’t sell for much more than that today,” she says.