LA CONCHITA — It's no accident that Doug Richardson's Seaside Banana Gardens, an 11-acre farm that hugs the coast a dozen miles north of Ventura, is a novelty even in fruitful California.
Southern California's coastal climate may be mild compared to Nebraska's, but only pockets of it are mild enough to grow truly tropical fruit like bananas.
"This is a unique microclimate," said Richardson, pointing to his grove, the only commercial banana farm in the western United States.
Richardson's plantation produces 58 varieties of the yellow fruit, along with mangoes, Kona coffee berries and sugar cane.
The microclimate Richardson described covers a ribbon of land nestled near the oceanfront community of La Conchita "from about the oil refineries to Mussel Shoal," Richardson said.
And if location, location, location is the watchword of Realtors, it's also true for commercial banana growers.
The area is a frost-free pocket rimmed with eastern cliffs that keep the balmy ocean breezes circulating. The colder night air from the inland mountains is, in effect, blocked from settling in. Which is why "it tends to be a lot milder here on winter nights--8 or 10 degrees warmer," Richardson said. In other words, good banana weather.
"The main thing is that he's close to the ocean and the cliffs isolate it from land breezes," said meteorologist Terry Schaffer.
The cliffs, in reality the foothills of Los Padres National Forest, provide the air drainage needed to keep frost at bay, said Bob Brendler, a UC farm advisor. "We get our worst frosts when there's no air movement. For instance, avocado trees just a little up a slope will do better than the ones on the valley floor, where there's no movement."
"Old-timers used to talk about Ventura County's banana belt," Brendler said. "It was the sloping areas along the Santa Clara River near the ocean that still have some hills, around Saticoy. It was a term for the mild climate there."
Fruit grower Rob Brokaw said that some banana varieties will grow in other parts of Ventura County "with lots of water and fertilizer, but Doug's spot is special, unique. Bananas are so frost-sensitive."
The California Rare Fruit Growers Assn. "makes a hobby out of growing what we shouldn't be able to grow," said its president, Robert Vieth, in Thousand Oaks.
Vieth described the ingredients of a good microclimate conducive to growing tasty bananas.
"Frost free, of course, so probably on the south side. Also under an eave and against a brick wall. Bricks retain warmth. The most reliable, tastiest varieties grown here are the small ladyfingers and the Orinoco. Also the ice cream and red Cuban."
Even in Florida, commercial banana farms are rare, said Brokaw, whose nursery also grows exotic fruits. "They can get a frost there, too."