By Tom Collins
BLYTH — When an Ontario farm first started selling bananas five years ago, no one would believe they were grown on the farm.
“They thought we were actually buying bananas from the food terminal in Toronto,” said Terry Brake of Canada Banana at Blyth in Huron County. His is the only farm in Canada growing bananas.
Eleven years ago, Brake was in a serious car crash that caused brain injuries. He had to quit his job as a mechanical engineer. One doctor suggested gardening might be therapeutic and gave Brake a banana plant. Laurie Macpherson was Brake’s caregiver and liked the idea of growing tropical fruit. She bought 100 acres in 2010 and started growing pineapples, papayas, oranges, limes and lemons. But bananas are now easily the biggest part of their full-time farming operation.
The plants are grown in four hoop houses — temporary greenhouse-like coverings that measure 30 ft. by 100 ft. and can be easily moved. This allows the plants to be planted right into the farm soil. The farmers lay down a plastic lining in the winter to keep the heat in the ground. Now they grow thousands of pounds of bananas a year, all stemming from that one plant. A plant grows pups, or offshoots, that are transplanted to create new banana plants. It’s important to always have new plants growing as a banana plant dies after a banana harvest and needs to be chopped down or it will attract bugs if you leave it in the ground, Brake said.
The farm has about 5,000 banana plants, about 200 to 300 mature plants at any one time. They sell the fruit for 50 cents per banana at farmers’ markets and at the farm on Saturdays. Most of their buyers take the two-hour drive from Toronto to see for themselves. At their open house last month they had about 1,000 visitors, he said.
He insists the farm’s bananas taste better. “When you buy a tomato in the store and you grow one at home, which one do you like better?” asked Brake. “It’s the same thing with the banana because it’s picked fresh. It’s not picked down in Guatemala, put on a boat, shipped to Montreal and New York, put on a truck, shipped to the warehouse and then put back on a truck to go to the food terminal and shipped off to the store.”
Macpherson grows seven different strains of bananas, such as lady fingers, which are sweet and the length of an average adult lady’s hand. The plant can produce about 90 bananas. On the other extreme are big berthas, grown from a 15-foot high plant that can produce almost 400 lb. of bananas or up to 300 bananas.
But the farmers prefer a more manageable size.
“We like them around 150 to 200 lb (about 200 bananas). They’re workable at that point,” said Brake. “They’re easy to take off and cut and store.”
They plant the bananas from February to June and bananas are generally ready to be harvested between November to March.
The farmers put organic chicken manure pellets on the soil every three weeks and have installed timers and drip lines that can water the plants right at the root.
They give half a gallon of water every four hours in the summer to keep the soil moist and increase yields.
They plan to build another 100 hoop houses within the next few years to expand their business.