Marketing Unusual Bananas in Kona

 

By Ken Love August 2007

 

 

Many horticultural publications make reference to thousandsof bananas around the world and a few talk about more than 100 in Hawaii.Consumers, especially visitors to the state generally know of only a few, bybrands, Chiquita and Dole. Others know of red cooking bananas and / orplantains.  After 5 years of weeklyfarmers markets at the Kona Pacific Farmers Co-op and the Keauhou Kona farmersmarket, I found that most of the visitors and residents had no idea there wereother bananas being grown and that they were anxious to try them.

 

Two years in the making the "Big Island Bananas"poster published a few months ago has already helped to increase farmer marketsales in Kona. When displaying the poster at the KCC market here in Honolulu,sadly people wanted to by the bananas and not my poster.  However, there is hope that Honoluluresidents will be able to enjoy some of the bananas relished by Kona residents.  This in part to our changing demographicsand the plethora of new farmers in Kona who are looking at much greater cropdiversification than ever before. Seasonal diversification by variety and cultivar as well as species andfamily has begun to help with small farm sustainability, and the unusualbananas play an important part.

 

The first step in adding to the mix of diversified AG inKona was to identify growers willing to share or sell banana cultivars outsideof the quarantine areas. In South Kona, this was primarily done thanks to thePhilippine community. Many of who routinely grow up to a dozen varieties.  Some of our newer farmers had a numberof different varieties but in a few cases didnŐt know if they were edible.Generally they knew only apple and regular bananas. Many of the older farms wevisited had incredible collections of Hawaiian bananas that they only knew as"cooking kind". Finding these and explaining their value helped tosecure juvenile plants which we could use to repopulate Kona's Amy B.H.Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden as well as plant a selection at our 12 TreesProject site.

 

The need for grower education on harvesting, Postharvesthandling, variety identification and marketing became apparent. At our HawaiiTropical Fruit Growers - West Hawaii chapter meetings we focused on bananas afew times. Knowing when to harvest a bunch was the first topic addressed. Someof the buyers had been complaining that a few new farmers would cut the bananasmany weeks before they should have been.

 

Traditionally the bunch was cut and tossed into the back ofa truck, which caused more bruising than local produce buyers care to showtheir customers. We suggested that in order to get more for value for theirproduct, they needed to carefully cut the bunch, then cut the hands and box thefruit in the field.

 

Expanding on the traditional markets for the unusual bananaswas done by holding a few meetings with American Culinary Federation, (ACF),chefs and featuring some of the unusual bananas at Big Island culinaryevents.  The chefs who wanted towork with bananas or feature some of them at hotel, would in turn order themfrom the wholesaler, Adaptations, who we were working with.  Value added banana products weredeveloped with the Hawaii Community College -West Hawaii Culinary Arts program.These were tested at the schools public lunches and are currently being sold toraise funds for the schools program. We have also started to accumulate banana recipes for futurepublication. We are working on cross regional grants for chefs to be able toshare experiences with counterparts in the Caribbean who often use bananas in avariety of dishes not commonly found in Hawaii.

 

Identity of various bananas is no easy task and we used awide variety of sources, especially the Kepler Rust descriptors.  In order to produce the poster we hadto narrow down some of the names and decide on how to present some of thedifferences, especially with red bananas. There were as many as 10 names in various Pilipino dialects for the samebananas. With Hawaiian bananas common names on different islands were, attimes, confusing.

 

Creating signage for growers and groceries to use was thenext step. These have been most effective in adding value to what waspreviously just called a cooking banana.

Hotel chefs have used the signage as well which has led toincreased consumption by guests. The signs are routinely used at a South Kona grocery regardless of whichgrower brings in the fruit to sell. On a number of occasions I've been asked tocheck the store and make sure they have the right sign for the right banana.

 

What all of this has done is to increase the 50 cents apound the grower was getting for "cooking" bananas or unusual sweetervarieties like ice cream, saba, mysore and goldfinger. Hotels will pay up to$2.00 a pound for the more unusual Hawaiian bananas and at the minimum, $1.00 apound for the others. Some groceries and farm stands have also agreed topay  $1.00 a pound or moredepending on rarity.  At farmersmarkets many of the unusual bananas easily sell for 50 cents each. We'veencouraged growers to follow

Dr. Kent Flemings cost of production banana spreadsheetavailable at

http://www2.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/spreads/

 

The Big Island Banana poster can be seen at

http://www.hawaiifruit.net/bib1417-lowR.jpg

 

Thank you,

 

Ken Love