Success Comes in Bunches for Two Californians, Purveyors of Bananas Born—and Grown—in the U.S.A.
Military coups pose no threat to their colorful domain, populated by Blue Javas, Jamaican Reds and orange-yellow Cardabas, but Doug Richardson and Paul Turner have turned the tiny village of La Conchita, Calif., into a virtual banana republic.
With 55 varieties currently under cultivation and a country-wide clientele clamoring for their pesticide-free produce, Richardson and Turner are the proud proprietors of Seaside Banana Gardens, the biggest banana plantation in California. Richardson, 39, estimates that their 2,500 plants are producing about a ton of bananas each week. "My living room is full of boxes of bananas packed from floor to ceiling, waiting for shipment to Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey—all over the East," he says proudly.
At the moment, the partners have only 11 of 15 leased acres planted; when they are at full production next year, they expect an annual harvest of more than 150 tons. Once they reach that level, Richardson believes that the improbable venture will gross $200,000. Quite a fruitful return on the $15 he spent for a single banana plant back in 1980. Even more remarkable considering that the tropical plant wasn't supposed to grow in California at all, much less bear fruit.
Eight years ago, Richardson was a landscape contractor specializing in fruit trees. Tired of planting the same old lemons and limes, he decided to try out some tropical plants purely for their ornamental qualities. Since everyone knew that these plants weren't likely to thrive in coastal California's temperate climate, he didn't expect much. But after experimenting in his 20-foot by 20-foot front yard with bananas, guavas and passion fruit, Richardson discovered something surprising: The bananas cared not a fig for conventional wisdom.
"After four years of getting a yield of fruit that I wasn't supposed to be getting in this area, I got hooked on the idea of growing them commercially," says Richardson. It wasn't going to be easy. Bananas are thin-skinned and picky about their growing conditions. Temperatures below freezing will kill a banana plant, and all but the hardiest varieties will stop growing if the temperature falls below 53ºF. Temperatures above 100 severely impede growth. To bear fruit, a banana plant needs from 14 to 23 consecutive months of frost-free, sunny California weather.
Located 75 miles north of Los Angeles on a narrow, sheltered crescent of land backed by 300-foot-high bluffs, La Conchita is particularly hospitable terrain. Explains Richardson: "Because the ocean is a tremendous heat sink, it increases the air temperature above it by 10 to 20 degrees. Also, we have southern exposure, and the sun streams across our land all day long. So we have a warmer, more favorable climate for bananas than even places far to the south. Latitude isn't everything."
Seaside's top bananas have little time for the common, bland-tasting, supermarket Cavendish, which is usually warmed and treated with ethylene gas to ensure its eventual ripe yellow glow. Though Richardson and Turner do grow some Cavendish (organically, of course, since they never resort to chemical warfare), it is exotics such as the Brazilian ladyfinger, the Manzano or apple banana, the triangular Cardaba, the Hawaiian Popoulu and various costly Polynesian cooking varieties that are their biggest sellers.
With consistencies ranging from nearly crunchy to creamy smooth, flesh colors from salmon pink to orange and flavors from strawberry-sweet to pineapple-tart, these are bananas few Americans have ever tasted. So Seaside offers an introductory seven-pound sampler pack of five different varieties for $25, postpaid and sent by air. "Once you start eating these bananas, you want to keep eating them," says satisfied produce broker Arthur Korngiebel III of Full Sail Produce. "It's the flavor. They taste better because of the way they're grown."
A former offshore-oil engineer who had always wanted to farm, Turner knew Richardson from his pre-engineering days, when they did landscaping work together. In 1985 he gave up the grueling but high-paying oil rig work because, he says, "I began feeling like a money machine, and I wasn't doing something I liked." Then he looked up his old friend. Says Turner, 37: "Doug told me he had just planted four acres of bananas. After I watched them grow and tasted some of them, I was sold. I've been heart and soul into it as a partner ever since."
For his part, Richardson, after earning a geography degree in college, ended up in La Conchita for the most Californian of reasons. "I wanted to work near the ocean," he says. "I like to surf." These days, Seaside's burgeoning business has forced him to shelve his search for the perfect wave and to replace that noble quest with a more awesomely gnarly ambition. "We never set out to conquer the world market," he says. "We just wanted to grow a perfect banana. And we have."
—Ned Geeslin, with Suzanne Adelson in La Conchita
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