AGRI TRENDS: So, you want to grow banana?

“Banana is the most economically important fruit crop in the Philippines,” said the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD). “It is the only locally-grown fruit available year-round.”

The Philippines is the only Asian country to be included in the list of the top four leading banana exporting nations, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The three others are from South America, namely: Ecuador (which provides more than 30 percent of global banana exports), Costa Rica, and Colombia. All four countries account for about two-thirds of the world’s exports, each exporting more than one million tons.

In popular culture and commerce, “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet “dessert” bananas that are usually eaten raw. The bananas from a group of cultivars with firmer, starchier fruit are called plantains, and are generally used in cooking rather than eaten raw. The word “banana” is derived from the Arabic word “finger.”

Unknowingly, banana is one of the most healthful fruits the world has known. Alexander the Great was so fascinated by the virtues of this fruit that he described it as “the heavenly fruit that tasted like nectar sweetened in honey.”

Health experts claim that banana is low in protein, free of fats but high in energy. A fully ripe banana has 20-25 percent sugar. It has a significant amount of B-vitamins, especially B1 and B6. B1 is a brain tonic whereas B6 relieves, in particular, uncomfortable symptoms of the pre-menstrual tension syndrome like irritability, headaches, tender breasts, and water retention.

Researches conducted recently at the University of Minnesota, School of Medicine, substantiate earlier reports that high potassium diets (banana being one of these) lower blood cholesterol levels. Subjects getting extra dietary potassium are also less prone to hypertension, strokes and atherosclerosis and finally show significantly low mortality rates.

A major study reveals that diets loaded with potassium-rich bananas may be able to cut the risk of strokes by one third. Scientists feel that many people can be protected against strokes and heart attacks by minimizing sodium (common salt) intake and by consuming plenty of potassium-rich foods of which banana is one. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has just allowed the banana industry to make official claims for the fruit’s ability to reduce the risk of blood pressure and stroke.

If you are having trouble with stress, potassium-rich banana can help you. Potassium is a vital mineral, which helps normalize the heartbeat, sends oxygen to the brain and regulates the body’s water balance. When you are stressed, our metabolic rate rises, thereby reducing our potassium levels. These can be rebalanced with the help of a high-potassium banana snack.

Aside from coconut, banana can be considered as “the tree of life.” Dondon Carlo P. Lejano, in an article which appeared in the quarterly publication of Bureau of Agricultural Research, wrote: “Aside from being eaten fresh, the ripe fruit can also be processed into jam, candies, and purees. On the other hand, the unripe bananas may be processed into starch and chips. Banana extracts can also be processed into wine, catsup and vinegar.”

The banana leaves have their uses, too. Lejano wrote: “In some areas, especially in the provinces, the banana leaves are believed to be medicinal and can heal open-skin wounds faster. Aside from being used as packing materials in markets and other areas of trade, the banana leaves are also used for cooking purposes.”

There are several kinds of bananas grown in the country but the most popular ones are the latundan, lakatan, and saba. These are mostly grown in the backyard or as a component in an intercropping scheme with minimum care and management. Cavendish is the export variety grown by commercial banana plantations in southern Philippines, particularly in Davao.

For local market, the most profitable variety to grow is lakatan. “Fresh lakatan is very popular in the market,” PCARRD said. “However, supply does not always meet the high demand, especially in Luzon.”

How profitable is it to grow lakatan? According to PCARRD, even if you plant just one-fourth of the farm to banana, you will have an annual net profit of P24,000 in the second year and will shoot up to P69,000 in the ninth year. If you plant the whole farm with banana, you will get an annual net profit of P121,000 in the second year and then P304,000 in the ninth year.

“Lakatan fruits can be harvested 8-12 months after planting,” said the investment briefer prepared by PCARRD. “Suckers are allowed to grow for the next fruiting cycle and repeated for another cycle as long as plants are healthy.”

If you want to go into lakatan production, there are some things you have to consider. Banana can grow from the poorest to the richest type of soil with varying success. So, you must take into consideration your farm.

“Banana plants require moist, deep, fertile and well-drained soil,” informs the Southern Mindanao Integrated Agricultural Research Center (SMIARC). Since it is sensitive to standing water, plant banana in the area where the water is easily drained.

For maximum growth and production, “lakatan has to be planted in areas with slightly acidic to neutral soil (ph 5.0-7.0), with temperature of 25-30 degrees Centigrade and with average rainfall of 100-150 millimeters per month.” If you are not so sure about your farm, contact the Department of Agriculture in your area and ask them.

After the soil, the next thing to consider is the planting materials. Choose from any of the following: suckers, corms, or tissue-cultured planting materials. Suckers are vertical shoots arising from the mother plants. Ideally, the suckers should be 100-150 centimeters in height and taken from disease-free and vigorous mother plants.

Corms are the underground stems of the banana that look like very large tubers. Select corms that are about 10-15 centimeters (about one-half kilogram) from disease-free mother plants. Each corm should have a minimum of one good bud.

Tissue-cultured planting materials can be obtained from recognized and reputable nurseries and are ready to be planted when they reach the five-leaf stage.

Farm facilities that you need in the production are a packing shed, a washing/delatexing tank and irrigation. Bamboos are needed as support materials to the banana plants. Other basic tools and equipment include weighing scale, sprayers, bolos, knives, and ladder. Farm supplies consist of organic and inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and packaging materials.

Here are some recommended cultural and other practices that are needed to produce lakatan successfully from SMIARC:

• Fertilize the plant with 0.25 kilogram of urea plus 0.25 kilogram of muriate of potash every three months to ensure proper growth.

• Ring/Strip weed until the plants can provide shade to suppress weed growth.

• Remove dry leaf sheaths and leaves quarterly using a pruning knife attached to a long pole.

• Remove unwanted suckers by digging or cutting off from point of attachment to the mother plant or by severing a sucker at the ground level.

• Debell bunches immediately after the appearance of the false hand.

The fruits are ready for harvest when the plant has six or less functional leaves (and turning yellow). The fruits are full, plump, round and light green and the angles in the fingers are rounded. Generally, this is about 12-14 weeks from flower emergence. Harvest the fruits not earlier than 80 hanging days.

For small bunches, SMIARC recommends that the harvester should cut the trunk slowly and partially (about one-third from the top) to ensure slow toppling of the bunch. Knife, bolo, sickle or hatchet may be used to do the operation. For easy handling, the harvester can hold the peduncle leaving about 30 centimeters of the stalk.

For big bunches, bamboo poles is recommended to support the upper portion of the bunch. The harvester moves the base of the pole slowly until the bunch touches the shoulder pad. He then cuts the stem of the bunch 46 centimeters above the fruit to provide a handle for the carrier.

“Work out marketing arrangements before harvesting,” suggests PCARRD. In order to get a good price for your fruits, “check established banana wholesalers and retailers in your area.”

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