Published on 01/13/05

Another sweet crop for Georgia farmers: bananas?

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Georgia is famous for growing sweet peaches and onions. But farmers could add another sweet crop to the state's sugary reputation, says a University of Georgia economist.

Bananas could be a viable alternative crop for Georgia farmers, says Greg Fonsah, an economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Bananas are associated with tropical climates. They're grown in Georgia mostly as landscape plants that begin to grow in spring and form big, floppy leaves by summer.

But banana plants don't do well when the weather turns cool. Freezing temperatures generally kill the plants back to ground level before they can make edible bananas.

Some home gardeners take special care of trees during the winter to produce bunches.

But Georgia has potential, Fonsah said.

"Georgia's climate is similar to other subtropical countries like Israel, China and Taiwan," he said. "These countries successfully grow and produce bananas. If they can, Georgia can, too."

Before joining the UGA Extension Service, Fonsah worked 15 years in the private sector with banana companies and farmers around the world in such places as China, Cameroon and Hawaii.

Cold-hardy banana

Fonsah and CAES horticulturists Gerard Krewer and Mark Rieger are studying 32 banana varieties planted at the UGA Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens in Savannah, Ga.

They're looking for varieties that will be good landscape plants for nurseries to sell and for varieties that could possibly fruit in Georgia's climate.

Many of the varieties have shown cold-hardiness and have produced bunches in the field, Rieger said. But it's going to be a challenge to find a variety that can consistently take Georgia winters.

"The challenge will be to find the one that has a short fruiting cycle of around nine months," Rieger said, "one that has a little added cold-hardiness."

A variety that could take 30-degree (Fahrenheit) nights without dying could possibly produce bunches in late November or early December in some parts of Georgia, he said.

This would be a good variety for homeowners or for farmers who want to grow bananas on a small scale for pick-your-own sites or roadside stands.

Bananas need a lot of water and a good fertilizer program, Rieger said. Insects and diseases don't cause many problems for bananas in Georgia.

They plan to create annual cropping production guidelines, Fonsah said. Based on the work at the bamboo farm, the guidelines will show how best to grow and market bananas in Georgia.

Ethnic markets

Selling Georgia bananas shouldn't be a problem, Fonsah said.

Few bananas are grown for food in the continental United States, he said. But the United States is the world's largest consumer of bananas, importing about $1.1 billion of bananas each year.

Most bananas imported into the United States are the Cavendish variety from Central and South America. It's the 8- to 10-inch, bright-yellow banana commonly seen in grocery stores.

This variety is tropical and not cold-hardy. It wouldn't grow well in Georgia for fruit, he said.

But Georgia farmers could target a niche market for the non- Cavendish varieties. They're generally smaller and used in ethnic cuisines. Latin, Asian and other ethnic populations are growing in Georgia and the Southeast, Fonsah said.

"And the demand for niche and ethnic banana markets is rising exponentially," he said.

Florida produces about $2.5 million a year in non-Cavendish bananas for ethnic markets. They sell for $1.29 to $1.79 per pound in Atlanta, compared to only 48 cents per pound for Cavendish bananas, Fonsah said.

People already want to know more.

"We've received many calls from farmers, nursery growers and county agents across the state wanting to know more about how to grow bananas in Georgia," Fonsah said.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.