This post is from our April/May 2012 issue of Living Naturally when our Produce Manager Kim Dvorak visited Equal Exchange banana producers in Peru.
Written by Susan Budig
Banana bread, banana splits, bananas straight from the peel, banana mashed for the baby, banana muffins with nuts, and sliced on morning cereal; the list keeps going: don’t forget the smoothies and pudding, too!
Bananas, as an edible commodity, are sold more than any other fruit worldwide. Its importance as a food crop ranks after rice, wheat and corn. Unique to crop production of bananas, however, is that their growth is exclusive to the tropics.
Scott Patterson, Midwest sales manager and worker-owner at Equal Exchange, which supplies Valley Natural Foods with bananas, said, “the crazy part of bananas is the difficulty in obtaining a nice, yellow banana. It’s an amazing feat to orchestrate.”
Whereas some fruits and vegetables are allowed to ripen on the vine or branch or in the dirt, bananas have their own requirements in order to appear appealing when a customer picks up a bunch of the fruit from the shelf.
“The whole thing is driven by the challenge of moving a lot of fruit at one time and appearing at the store in the right color and ripeness stage,” explained Patterson. The fruit, in this case, travels 4000 miles from Peru to Minnesota before landing in the customer’s cart. Those are a lot of miles for a product usually placed at the top of the grocery bag so it won’t bruise.
Kim Dvorak, produce manager at Valley Natural Foods, said, “I feel we have the freshest [product].” In fact, her commitment to quality produce supersedes profit, “we’ll take a loss if we have to [in order to] have fresh produce.” The banana industry is dominated worldwide by only a few companies: Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole and Fyffes. Equal Exchange enters the market as a middleman but takes the sting out of that term by working with both ends of the equation, the farmer and the retailer, to create equitable partnerships.
“Generally a middleman wouldn’t work like we do, they’d just take a cut,” said Patterson. “We are taking risk. We’re paying more than other folks. We’re doing the hard work to help the farmer [and the co-op] grow their business.”
Dvorak agreed with Patterson’s understanding of how the triangle of relationship works. Partnering with Equal Exchange adds a humanitarian dimension to an otherwise financial transaction.
“Another huge difference is you’re actually helping an economy,” said Dvorak. “The person it’s going back to is what a co-op is all about.” By spending about 33 cents on each banana instead of 19 cents, which is tacking on 70 pennies to most grocery bills, Valley Natural Foods customers are “helping a community, maybe not a local community, but not a corporation,” emphasizes Dvorak.
Patterson’s words emphatically and graphically make the same point, “Ninety-nine percent of Dole bananas come from plantations. Who controls the money? Who has the power? What are you supporting with your dollar?” Patterson indicts. “A colonial legacy? Or a model that’s trying to empower farmers to improve their own lives?”
Last year, Dvorak traveled to Peru to fully understand the journey of a banana, an experience she found eye-opening. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything,” she said.
While on her exploratory trip, she discovered that the amount of work devoted by these Peruvian small-farm owners and the money they received in exchange for their product was very unequal. “Things aren’t fair in Peru,” she realized.
“By purchasing Fair Trade,” however, Dvorak knows that the farmers are “getting a little extra, a security blanket. Fair Trade tries to bring in security to their farms.” She added, “these people live very humbly.”
The mission of Valley Natural Foods finds an echo with the goals of Equal Exchange. Both businesses seek community building as a common objective. Concern for community is a cooperative principle.
Beyond the politics of banana production, we have a little, green banana that grows seemingly upside down in that it grows with its end pointing up to the sun instead of hanging down like other fruits that grow on trees.
Banana plants, for all their size—they can reach heights of nearly 25 feet—are not trees, but a flowering herbaceous plant. Many of the roughly one thousand varieties are allowed to ripen on the stem, which can be yellow, red, or purple at maturity. However, those destined for export are harvested weeks before they appear in the store and are definitely green as a US dollar bill.
In fact, the reason bananas are picked prior to ripening has a lot to do with the dollar bill. Because they are so perishable, the time it takes to harvest, transport—often to several locations before final destination—and wait on the store shelf exceeds the amount of time it takes the banana to ripen on its own, cut off its stem and shipped.
Left to its own resources, bananas produce ethylene gas as a ripening agent. However, once harvested as a green banana, the fruit travels through baths, refrigeration and an assortment of trucks, including a chamber where it is gassed with ethylene before it is marked with a sticker and put out for sale.
The modest banana wields a lot of weight as an essential food commodity. Equal Exchange and Valley Natural Foods want to make sure some of that weight goes to the farmer who produces the food. For less than a buck, a consumer at the grocery store can join in making a difference.
Dan Yavner, a retired faculty at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, explained, “the benefit to the farmer through greater purchasing power far outweighs the cost to the consumer of an extra buck.” In other words, the dollar in the pocket of an American consumer makes little difference compared to the same dollar in the pocket of a Peruvian farmer where the difference can be huge.
The triangle relationship between Equal Exchange, the banana farmer, and Valley Natural Foods is all about partnership and empowerment. “We’re trying to create a market for them so that they have their own power,” said Patterson. “If you think folks deserve a fair shake, there’s only one choice.”