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Going Bananas : Small plantation makes the near-impossable with exotic varieties of the tropical fruit.

October 08, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

LA CONCHITA, Calif. — Lost in a blur of passing scenery along U.S. 101, just north of Ventura, is an elongated plot of land that represents one of the more interesting chapters in California's diverse agricultural treasury.

Sandwiched between the coastal mountain range, the freeway roar and Pacific Ocean is the continental United States' only commercial banana plantation.

Well, it's not quite a sprawling agrarian estate yet--what with only four acres of fruit-bearing plants and twice as much again about to come on line.

But the lush foliage hugging the sloping hillside here is much more than an experiment. Fifty or so different banana varieties grow successfully year-round from the crowns of the towering, leafy plants.

Doug Richardson, otherwise a landscape contractor, is proving that the most tropical of fruits can be commercially raised in balmy Southern California. And his 2 1/2-year-old project also makes him, for now, the state's top banana.

Not only has he ignored the skeptics, but in the process Richardson has become a monopolist, of sorts, being the sole supplier of several exotic strains normally found only in the rich soils of faraway island nations or in the heat and humidity of Central America, South Asia or Africa.

'No Other Place'

"There is no other place in the world, certainly no place in this hemisphere, where you can find such a selection," he says.

Despite riding a streak of good gardening fortune and trade press acclaim, Richardson complains that Americans take bananas for granted.

"People have paid so little for bananas for so long that they don't appreciate them," he said, referring to food store prices that often fall as low as 19 cents a pound.

Although Richardson grows only a small amount of the Cavendish variety, universally found in supermarkets, he also produces other, more extraordinary fruit that will change the banana's simple image forever.

There's the tangy, citrus-like "ice cream" or blue Java banana with its pale, silvery peel. Another, the sweet, musty Iholena, has a coral/pink heart, more like a sherbet than a fruit. And the Red Jamaican offers a luxurious scarlet covering and an aromatic fruit with flavor reminiscent of apple. The others differ in size, shape and texture. Some are eaten raw, others lend themselves to cooking.

Prices for this rich assortment range from 50 cents to $1.50 a pound. That includes special care to minimize the bruising found on the more common variety.

Richardson also grows the fruit without the fungicides routinely used on imports. Bananas grown in Central and South America, for instance, must be treated with chemicals to inhibit the development of mold or rot during extending shipping to this country.

For now, Richardson's retail efforts are limited to Saturdays at the Ventura Farmers' Market. He also distributes directly to those few who know of the project, such as a couple of caterers and several Los Angeles-area restaurants.

Although sales are modest, Richardson's Seaside Banana Garden is verging on a profit for its troubles--a surprising accomplishment considering contemporary farm economics and the short amount of time invested.

Richardson hit on the idea after growing weary of planting the same kinds of fruit-bearing trees--oranges, lemons, avocados--during the course of his landscaping business.

Sought Something New

"I went to several San Diego nurseries looking for something new in the subtropical realm," he said. "So, I started latching on to all these different types of banana plants. But the guys down there said, 'Don't expect to get any bananas from these trees because they have \o7 never \f7 borne fruit in California.' "

"Not only did I get some fruit, but I got great-quality bananas," said Richardson, enthusiastic even after a long day of hard work--planting, trimming, harvesting and selling.

His project initially was assisted by research accumulated in other subtropical parts of the world that have a history of banana production, such as Israel, the Canary Islands and South Africa.

Much of the work, though, was trial and error.

It also took several years to persuade the operators of the La Conchita Ranch, which owns the property, to lease him the necessary acreage for what, at first, looked like folly.

The product certainly seems worth the pioneering efforts at this stage.

In fact, Richardson has found that bananas grown in the cooler Ventura County climate yield a more pronounced, richer flavor than those from the hot, tropical growing areas of Costa Rica, Honduras or Ecuador.

Even so, some in the produce industry still don't buy Richardson's apparent success with this fickle fruit.

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