Can Alabama Go Bananas?

In Alabama, farmland, which accounts for 84 percent of farm assets, is being sold for development as many farmers are no longer able to sustain their operations. Crop diversity is a means to increase economic sustainability of farm operations. A diverse crop planting creates niche markets by allowing growers to produce crops locally that have traditionally been imported. To meet the increased demand for farmers to engage in non-traditional specialty crops there is a need for the introduction of new specialty crops in the southeast region of the US.

A study was initiated in Coastal Alabama to determine feasibility of banana fruit production and best-suited cultivars for fruit production in coastal Alabama.  Thirteen short-cycle, cold-tolerant banana cultivars banana cultivars representing four genetic groups and three groups based on psuedostem height – dwarf, medium, and tall, were planted in Fairhope, AL on June 5, 2013.

Banana plants propagated from tissue culture were acquired in April 2013 (Agristarts Inc., Apopka, FL, USA) and planted at a spacing of 2.4 m within rows and 3 m between rows.  Phenological and physiological data collected were leaf emergence rate, total leaf number, number of functional leaves present at sampling time, plant height, plant diameter 30 cm above base and height and diameter ratio.

Preliminary results suggest medium size cultivars show promise for banana fruit production in coastal Alabama. Phenological and physiological variables are similar to bananas grown in other subtropical regions. Most varieties produced high total leaf numbers, maintained adequate leaf surface area and produced leaf emergence rates similar to plants cultivated in the subtropics.

‘Gold Finger’ exhibited the most potential for fruit production in the region given its leaf production rate and leaf retention combined with a comparatively low height and diameter ratio, while ‘Raja Puri’ exhibited the least potential.

Future research in our lab is focused to determine lowest survivable temperatures of the pseudostem of various subtropical banana cultivars as to determine their cold hardiness and find out management techniques to protect pseudostem from low temperatures that can prove lethal.

Bananas (Musa sp.) possess unique potential as a specialty crop because they are the leading import fruit crop in the US and the fourth most important crop globally. US banana import value rose from $ 1 billion in 2006 to nearly $ 2 billion in 2010 while global banana production was cited at over 100 million metric tons – a 33% increase since 2005 (FAOSTAT, 2013).

The US is the world’s largest consumer of bananas, which have traditionally been a product of the tropics. Moreover, bananas are intrinsic to many cultures as they are an important source of food and income and vital to the economies of developing nations serving a variety of functions such as a source of starch, dessert fruit, substrate for beer production, livestock forage, shade, roofing and medicinal purposes. Increased immigration into the U.S. creates further demand and greater potential for a banana specialty market within the agricultural sector.

Additionally, development of cold-tolerant and short-cycled banana cultivars has led to increased adaptability and expansion of banana fruit production beyond the ideal growing conditions characteristic of the tropics into the more variable climates of the subtropics.

Regions of banana fruit production in the subtropics are largely situated between 20° and 30° north and south of the Equator where production of bananas is met with the challenges presented by variations between day and night temperature as well as extremes in seasonal temperatures and uneven rainfall distribution.

Cavendish bananas, imported to the US primarily from plantations in Ecuador, the Philippines, Costa Rica, and Colombia at low prices, were selected as the market standard over a half century ago. This singular focus on Cavendish bananas creates niche market potential for non-Cavendish bananas seldom exploited and command a higher price.

There is precedence for the sale of other banana varieties on the market. In Thailand and Taiwan, non-Cavendish bananas are produced and exported globally, including to the US, where they command a higher price than the standard Cavendish.  Such niche ventures have been duplicated in the US, with a similar Florida market generating $ 2.5 million annually.

Banana studies conducted in the subtropics whether they target commercial banana fruit production, ornamental appeal, optimal plant spacing and arrangement or cultivar performance, demonstrate potential for banana production in the subtropics and their marketability in both local and international venues.

However, though bananas have wide adaptability and can tolerate abiotic stresses, they respond acutely to their environment and sub-optimal conditions will manifest slow growth, delayed fruit production, reduced quality of fruit and ornamental appeal. Drastic shifts in environmental conditions such as temperature and rainfall occur regularly in the subtropics and this will impose several constraints on banana markets. Banana phenology, therefore, has become increasingly important in the subtropics.

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