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Join the Banana Revolution

By Kelly Westhoff

Scott Patterson manages Equal Exchange’s Midwest banana distribution center in St. Paul.Scott Patterson manages Equal Exchange’s Midwest banana distribution center in St. Paul.

Bananas do not grow on trees. In fact, there is no such thing as a banana tree. The plant that produces the common yellow banana is actually an herb—the largest flowering herb in the world. It takes nine months before a banana plant is ready to produce a flower. After the bud appears, it is another 11 weeks before the plant produces any fruit. Once the fruit does start to develop, it grows quickly. Each banana plant only produces one stock of bananas in its lifetime. When the fruit has been cut, the plant is chopped down and replaced with a new shoot.

“From start to finish, it basically takes a year to produce a banana,” said Rodney North of Equal Exchange, a cooperatively owned provider of organic and fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar and bananas. A profitable banana grower, North said, “has banana plants producing at every stage of the 12-month cycle so that fruit is always ready to pick. It takes a lot of coordination. People almost never appreciate how hard it is to produce a banana.”

Bananas, North went on to explain, are often a loss leader for mainstream, American grocery stores. On each trip to the store, consumers expect to find milk and bananas—and to find them cheaply priced. “Bananas are the number-one food in the United States,” North said. For most grocery stores, he added, bananas make up 1 percent of sales. When one stops to consider that most grocery stores carry tens of thousands of products, it is impressive that a single item is capable of representing an entire percentage point of sales. And yet bananas are often sold below cost, which doesn’t bode well for the grower.

That’s why, since 2006, Equal Exchange has been working to introduce fair trade bananas to the American market. “We want consumers to be aware of the effort it takes to produce bananas, to respect that effort and to be willing to compensate growers for that effort,”

North said. “For many shoppers, our bananas are an alternative to supporting the big banana companies, the Doles and Chiquitas of the world, which are—frankly—notorious for questionable practices.” Banana farmers, it turns out, also welcome a viable alternative to selling their fruit to the banana giants.

Equal Exchange imports fair trade, organically grown bananas to the United States from two South American cooperatives. The first, El Guabo, is composed of 450 small farmers in Ecuador. The El Guabo cooperative has been active since 1998. Because its members have been working together for over 20 years, El Guabo is perfectly positioned to serve as a role model to younger banana cooperatives, like the Cepibo cooperative in Peru. The Cepibo cooperative counts nearly a thousand members among its ranks. Unlike its Ecuadorian counterpart, however, its farmers work much smaller parcels of land, less than a hectare each. For Cepibo members, therefore, the opportunity to pool their fruit in order to collect a higher market price is key. Yet it takes a concentrated effort to organize and maintain a profitable organic banana cooperative.

“It takes a long time for banana famers to make the transition from conventional bananas to organic,” said Bradley Russell, who works for Oké, the banana division of Equal Exchange. On average, it takes three years to cleanse the conventionally used chemicals from a farmer’s soil, he said. During that transition period,  farmers face hardships because their fruit cannot be sold at the higher organic price, yet their plants are more susceptible to insects and fungus. Because bananas grow in humid, tropical climates, conventional banana growers rely heavily on pesticides and fungicides.

Herbicides are also popular among conventional banana growers. “Weeds are a big problem for organic banana growers,” Russell said. Organic banana famers often spend countless hours whacking weeds with a machete. However, members of the El Guabo cooperative used some of their collective money earned from the sale of their bananas to purchase a gas-operated weed whacker. El Guabo members have also used cooperative funds to invest in organic herbicides, improve irrigation systems and construct modern packing stations. Because of its 20-year history, El Guabo members have been able to fund teacher salaries, purchase school curricula, construct a school for handicapped children and create an eldercare program for retired growers.

They have been able to do all of this because the sale of fair trade bananas includes more than just a fair price; it also includes a premium. That premium must go, not to individual farmers, but to a member-owned cooperative. Premium funds must be spent on projects that benefit the cooperative community as a whole. For example, in Ecuador, the government mandates the price of bananas. The current minimum price for a box of  conventionally grown bananas is $5.70, Russell said, explaining there are roughly 100 bananas in a box. The current minimum price for a box of fair-trade bananas is $8.60 per box, plus a $1 premium. The price for one box of fairtrade, organic bananas is $10.40 per box, plus the same $1 premium, she said. Because bananas are in demand, growers stand to reap a substantially higher amount if they can form cooperatives and sell to distributors outside the traditional corporate routes.

In order for the fair trade system to work, of course, there have to be shoppers willing to pay a higher price. Equal Exchange distributes its fairly traded bananas to member-owned food co-ops on the East Coast, in the Southwest and in the Upper Midwest. The Twin Cities is home to Equal Exchange’s Midwest banana distribution team. “You have to move a lot of bananas in order to be in the banana business,” said Scott Patterson, who manages Midwest banana distribution for Equal Exchange in St. Paul. Bananas must be shipped in refrigerated containers and stored in climate-controlled spaces, requirements that demand delicacy and add cost. Twin Cities’ co-ops, Patterson said, go through two containers of bananas each week, which equates to about 200,000 bananas.

“We believe our bananas taste better and come from a better supply chain,” Patterson said. “Consumers were able to learn about and understand the nuances of the coffee trade, and look at where fair trade coffee is today. Coffee has gone from a commodity to an amazing specialty product. That’s what we want to do for bananas,” he said. “Consumers are capable of understanding the complexities of the banana business. We want to turn it into an industry with a human face behind it.”

To learn more about fair trade bananas, visit: www.beyondthepeel.com.

Kelly Westhoff is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

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