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Near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, in early 2020, Matt Hong, co-founder of Oahu’s Banan frozen banana dessert chain, got some bad news. Banan’s banana supplier, Sugarland Farms, was throwing in the towel on the Cavendish variety bananas Banan uses – and with no warning.
Fortunately, for Banan, it had some backup: Gabriel Sachter-Smith, a banana scientist and farmer known as “Banana Gabe.”
Banan had invested $10,000 years before to help Sachter-Smith develop a banana nursery at Haleiwa’s Counter Culture Organic Farm on Oahu’s North Shore, Hong said. And it turned out Sachter-Smith’s banana operation, called Hawaii Banana Source, was starting to mature just when Banan needed bananas most.
Hong said the timing felt like a karmic gift for Banan, which had a handshake deal with Sachter-Smith to repay Banan with bananas whenever he could.
“It felt like a pat on the back, or a miracle, that his bananas started coming on line,” Hong says.
Sachter-Smith’s deal with Banan is just one example of what the 32-year-old banana enthusiast is doing to help rebuild Hawaii’s banana industry, combining academic knowledge gained at the University of Hawaii Manoa, with hands-on farming experience and infectious enthusiasm.
Sachter-Smith is cultivating some 200 varieties of bananas on the North Shore. They include the Dwarf Iholena banana, descended from the Hawaiian canoe plants brought to the islands by Hawaii’s Polynesian settlers, which Sachter-Smith believes can be grown on a large scale.
Other projects include breeding a small banana plant that will provide a steady stream of small bunches for home gardens. And for Banan, he’s growing a variety called Gros Michel, the original Central and South American type exported to the U.S. before they were supplanted by the Cavendish, the variety now most commonly sold in supermarkets.
Finally, there’s Sachter-Smith’s academic work, which entails expeditions to far-flung locales to catalogue plant varieties, like some Indiana Jones of the banana world.
“I have a ton of respect for Gabe,” says Richard Manshardt, a professor of horticulture at UH Manoa, where Sachter-Smith earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “I’d like to claim a lot of responsibility for who he is, but I can’t.”
In fact, Manshardt says, Sachter-Smith “was already familiar with a lot of banana research going on in the world” when he first came to Hawaii as an undergraduate from Colorado, where he had spent much of his teen years growing banana plants and cultivating hybrids. Sachter-Smith was also infectiously enthusiastic about farming and showed an unusual ability to build collaborations.
But most of all, Manshardt says, Sachter-Smith was “a child prodigy for banana research.”
Banan is hardly the only collaborator helping Sachter-Smith turn his banana dreams into a reality. Even more instrumental, Sachter-Smith said, is Rob Barreca, a major player in Hawaii’s resurgent diversified agriculture business. Barreca founded Counter Culture Organic Farm on the way to creating Farm Link Hawaii, an online local food marketplace and delivery service that has boomed amidst the pandemic.
Counter Culture now has 40 acres under its purview, including two 5-acre plots near Haleiwa and a recently added 30-acre plot near Waialua. Sachter-Smith manages the farming operation, which has given Barreca more time to focus on Farm Link, Barreca said.
While Counter Culture still grows other crops, like papaya, taro and turmeric, bananas are clearly Sachter-Smith’s passion. And although Banana Source has a lot of land and water available, there’s still one challenge, Sachter-Smith says.
“The one thing you can’t just snap your fingers and make happen is to have plants to put in the ground,” he said.
But that challenge isn’t stopping him. He gets new baby plant varieties from a facility called the Bioversity International Musa Germplasm Transit Centre in Belgium, which its website calls “the world’s largest banana gene bank.”
But he still has to propagate those into lots of plants. In some cases, to do that, he cuts the top off and slashes the stems of mature banana plants in the fields to encourage them to send out shoots that will produce baby plants. Another method is to harvest a root-like ball at the base of the plant, called a corm, and cultivate multiple shoots from each corm.
But all of this takes time, and it creates a challenge when scaling up to supply an operation like Banan, which processes frozen bananas into a dessert something like soft-serve ice cream but healthier.
Founded by four friends from Punahou School who decided to create a business together after reuniting back in Hawaii after college on the mainland, Banan started in a food truck on the side of Diamond Head, which the founders bought for $2,000.
By the time the pandemic hit, Banan had grown to four locations: two in Waikiki, one in Kailua and one in Manoa near the University of Hawaii. For a time, Banan also had two pop-up locations in Japan.
At its pre-pandemic peak, Banan was going through 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of bananas per week, Hong says.
And it wasn’t just any kind of banana.
Banan discovered the apple bananas grown in Hawaii clogged its machines, so it really could only use the Cavendish variety commonly sold in grocery stores. Fortunately, for a while at least, Sugarland had a big supply of Cavendish, so all of Banan’s bananas were grown locally, fulfilling Banan’s mission of supporting local agriculture with a farm-to-table operation that could provide meaningful jobs for its employees.
But then the pandemic came, along with word that Sugarland was cutting out the Cavendish bananas. The farm’s owner, Larry Jefts, said his biggest buyers were hotels and cruise ships, and when Covid-19 shut down tourism, it made no sense to grow Cavendish bananas, although he indicated he still grows some apple bananas.
Jefts said a major solar project under development, 176 Power Global’s Kupehau Solar farm near Kunia, added to the challenge by taking up farm land Sugarland once used for multiple crops, including apple bananas. But Jefts said the main reason Sugarland ditched Cavendish bananas was the pandemic-induced market crash.
All this left Banan turning to Sachter-Smith.
The question is how fast can he scale up to meet Banan’s demand?
Banan’s Manoa location closed after UH took over the building where it was located, Hong said.
But even with one fewer retail location, Banan needs more than Sachter-Smith can grow, he said.
Sachter-Smith says he’s “still in start-up mode,” producing about 2,000 pounds during a peak week.
It’s demoralizing that Banan now has to import bananas, Hong said. But he’s confident Sachter-Smith can scale up.
“If anybody can do it, it’s Gabe,” Hong said.
Banan isn’t Sachter-Smith’s only customer. He also sells through Farm Link. And he’s building connections with restaurateurs who want to showcase traditional Hawaiian foods.
A case in point is Juicy Brew, a vegetarian restaurant on Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki. For years, Juicy Brew has brought attention to Hawaiian ulu, the canoe plant also called breadfruit, by using it in recipes.
Now Juicy Brew has picked up on another canoe plant, Sachter-Smith’s Iholena bananas. Christina Hee, who co-owns Juicy Brew with her sister Jennifer, said they use the bananas for both a Cuban and black bean bowl and a taco bowl.
“That’s what I love to do: feature local produce, especially local produce that’s not common,” Christina Hee said.
But is there really enough demand for Hawaii Banana Source’s product to support a growing farm?
“There’s room for anybody with any product,” said Jefts, a longtime Oahu farmer who trained as an economist. “If you do a better job, you will have your share of the market.”
Among those confident Sachter-Smith can impact Hawaii in a big way is Anne Vezina, a Quebec-based science writer and researcher who also spent years in Montpellier, France, working with the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, a leading banana organization.
She recalls going with Sachter-Smith on a research expedition to Samoa, where they simply went cruising around at the beginning of the trip. Vezina noticed banana plants in the landscape, and afterward Sachter-Smith said he had seen them too, then started rattling off the names of more than a dozen types they had driven by, she said. Vezina recalls being astounded.
“You cannot explain it – how he does it,” she said of Sachter-Smith’s ability to classify banana plants. “It’s just instinctive.”
It’s a loss to banana science that Sachter-Smith chose to go into farming rather than pursue a doctorate and become a full-time researcher, she said.
But it’s a good opportunity for Hawaii, she said. Sachter-Smith’s plan to cultivate Dwarf Iholena bananas makes sense, she said, in part because the plants grow and produce fruit relatively quickly, outpacing a virus called Banana Bunchy Top before the disease can take hold.
She’s confident Sachter-Smith’s constant experiments with hybrids and propagation methods will pay off. He has so much going on; some of it is bound to stick, she said.
For his part, Sachter-Smith says all the tinkering with different varieties, hybrids and propagation methods is aimed at one overarching goal.
“I just need one good banana,” he said.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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