So while I posted the picture of the small, purple wild bananas in a past post, I now have experience with cultivated bananas. We visited Dole banana plantations in the northern part of Costa Rica….it’s quite the process!
Driving down roads and highways in Pennsylvania usually involves passing fields of corn and hay. In Costa Rica, the crops are bananas and pineapples! The banana plants (plants, not trees, we were told) are about 10-15 feet tall, with large leaves drooping from the tops of the plants. Each plant has one bunch of bananas covered in a blue plastic bag. As we were told by the Dole guy, the bunches are covered with plastic bags for three reasons: to provide a suitable microclimate for the bananas to ripen more quickly, to protect the bananas (at least to some degree) from insects and other pests, and to prevent the bananas from being bruised when it is windy and leaves may brush against the bunch.
The smallest bananas are on the end of the bunch that is nearest to the ground (which is actually the “top” because the flowers flip over and droop because of the weight). These are harvested earlier and sent to places (like the US) where people are willing to pay a premium for small bananas. The rest of the bananas stay on the bunch on the plant until it’s time for harvest.
When the bananas are the proper size, they are ready to be harvested. The workers protect the bananas from bruising by placing skinny foam pads between the banana “hands” (What are typically refered to as “bunches” when you buy them in the store are called “hands” in banana-lingo. The individual bananas are called “fingers”. A “bunch” (in the professional world of bananas) is the large bunch of bananas that comes from one plant, before it is divided into hands and fingers.). One banana harvester then stands under the bunch with a large pad on his shoulder while another cuts the bunch from the plant.
A bunch of bananas can weigh from 75-150 pounds. To save the backs of the workers, the cables are situated so that no bunch ever needs to be carried farther than 50 meters. When 25 bunches of bananas are hung the on cable that runs through the plantation, it is called a “banana train”. When there are three trains, or 75 bunches of bananas, the bunches are pushed (the cable runs on a slightly downward slope) and they move to the processing plant.
When the bananas reach the plant,
the foam pads are removed, the bags are stripped off, and the “hands” of bananas are cut off the bunches. The bananas then take a bath, where any fungicides are removed (insects are not as much of a problem for bananas as are fungi, so they usually only spray with fungicides while the bananas are growing).
They are furthered divided into smaller hands and fingers and packaged. They are shipped and then you can see them in your local grocer’s produce department!
History and random banana facts
Turns out, bananas are actually originally from Asia. 1876 was the beginning of commercial banana production in Costa Rica, and the first shipment of bananas went to Boston. Dole is named after James Dole, the “King of the Banana business”. Oh, and in Costa Rica, they aren’t bananas, but bananos. Our US-version of the word has an “a” instead of an “o”.
The country that eats the most bananas per capita is Sweden, with an average of 42 pounds of bananas consumed per person each year.
The US consumes an average of less than 30 pounds of bananas per person each year.
If you’re interested in learning more about bananas, there is a nice video (with a British-accent narration) here: http://www.dolecsr.com/PlanetDole/OurVideos/tabid/5612/Default.aspx .
It seems that Dole plantation (or at least the touristy location where we were) has fairly good rules and regulations in place with respect to workers’ rights and care. The few workers I spoke with had been working with Dole for several years and seemed happy with their jobs. This is in contrast to the next few posts I’ll have…