LA CONCHITA — Until last year, there was only one commercial banana plantation in the United States west of the Mississippi River. Now there are none.
At the northern tip of the tiny beach community of La Conchita, Seaside Banana Gardens has closed its palm-thatched gates for good. Its 50,000 trees are being dug up or plowed under.
Doug Richardson, the plantation's owner, lost his lease last year. He said he started to miss monthly payments to the La Conchita Ranch Co. after a massive mudslide in March 1995 buried many of his trees.
"We lost a quarter-million dollars in production and plants after the dirt came down," he said.
The plantation, located in a microclimate uniquely suited to bananas, never bounced back.
Richardson was given until March 1 to uproot his bananas and move his thousands of potted papayas, mangoes, guavas, sugar cane and other tropical flora.
It hasn't been easy.
Richardson has had to restore the acreage to the state it was in before he planted his first exotic tree there 12 years ago.
That has meant bulldozing thousands of banana trees, plus chopping down and carting off a eucalyptus windbreak along U.S. 101.
Richardson has sold some of his plants to wholesale nurseries. Many potted plants remain, carted a third of a mile to a lot at the south end of the one-gas-station town.
That newly leased 16 acres won't be open to the tourists and fruit fanciers who would drop by the old place to sample and purchase about 50 varieties of bananas. It will be more of a holding facility for Richardson's nursery stock while he tries to realize yet another dream.
He says he hopes one day to buy the land and turn it into a botanical garden for both tropical and native plants.
"I'm going to work on getting grants to open the garden on our new site, but it will be years," he said. "It would be a model demonstration farm for ecological design and education."
Meanwhile, Richardson said he might go back to retail fruit and vegetable marketing.
"But no matter what, I'll always feel good about all the small local growers that have come and bought our banana trees to try their hand at them."