After an 18-year absence, Southern California-grown bananas have returned to the Santa Monica farmers market. First-time farmer Andy Sheaffer of Vista Punta Gorda ranch in Ventura County harvested his first crop of organic fruit last week, in time for last week's Wednesday market.
Thirty minutes into the market last Wednesday, customers had plundered Sheaffer's supply of tree-ripened, canary yellow bananas, leaving behind boxes of unripe green clusters, called hands, for latecomers.
Of the eight varieties now in production at Vista Punta Gorda, four were on the display: the Brazilian dwarf, often called an "apple banana" in Hawaii for its apple-like flavor and jolt of acidity; the Raja Puri, an Indian variety comparable to the Brazilian dwarf with smaller fruit and a subtle crunchiness; the Cardaba, a popular cooking banana from the Philippines with faint, salmon colored flesh and stick-straight fruit; and the blue-hued Ice Cream banana, so named for its pronounced vanilla flavor.
Longtime market shoppers will remember the now-defunct Seaside Banana Gardens, which supplied several Los Angeles area markets — and a roadside stand alongside Highway 101 — with nearly 60 varieties of bananas from the mid-'80s to the late '90s. It was often cited as the first banana farm in the continental United States. Owner Doug Richardson stopped selling at the farmers market shortly after a 1995 landslide flooded the backside of his farmland with mud.
Richardson ultimately vacated the La Conchita property in 1999, six years before the western face of the ranch collapsed in a mudslide that killed 10 residents and destroyed 13 houses.
Survivors were given ownership of the property as part of a settlement and sold it to Andy Sheaffer in 2008. (The aspiring farmer's background as a contractor specializing in erosion control and hillside stabilization is no doubt comforting to the residents who live below.)
Two years later, Sheaffer bought the remaining banana trees from Richardson’s personal nursery and began rebuilding the La Conchita banana industry on a south-facing slope.
Today he farms eight acres of bananas, four of which are densely interplanted with avocados, a water-efficient permaculture technique popular in Australia, where it has proved to limit root rot and pests. The challenge, Sheaffer says, will be maintaining a steady production.
"You can grow bananas almost anywhere as long as it doesn't freeze," he says. "But to get it to produce fruit regularly and thrive — that's the big challenge in our climate."
Over the last month, a steady trickle of ominous headlines has caused a panic over Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4), an unstoppable fungal disease that has decimated banana plantations in Asia, the Middle East and Australia. The victim is the ubiquitous, but mostly flavorless, Cavendish banana — sometimes snubbed as a "hotel banana" in banana-rich countries — but neither Sheaffer nor Richardson appear concerned about the disease reaching Ventura County.
"The genetic diversity of bananas is so great," Richardson says. "Some of the best tasting bananas in the world are completely immune to Panama disease."
For now, shoppers can expect bananas at the Wednesday Downtown and Sunday Main Street markets. All four varieties sell for $4 per pound or $7 for 2 pounds. Also, look for Vista Punta Gorda bananas on the menus of local restaurants, including Providence, Mélisse, Cassia and the Rustic Canyon family of restaurants.
Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street, Santa Monica, (310) 458-8712, www.smgov.net.