Photo/IllutrationOrganic bananas grown in Minami-Kyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture, have a thin edible skin. (Tomoya Nozaki)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Try telling Ayumi Matsumoto that money doesn't grow on trees. He will just chuckle, because he knows it does.

Matsumoto works for an agricultural corporation in Minami-Kyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture, that grows a strain of organic banana whose skin is thin and edible. The strain was developed by an Okayama farm to withstand the Japanese winter.

Dollar signs and their equivalent are ringing for companies that grow this variety as banana fields around the world are under threat from a fungal epidemic.

A single premium organic banana can fetch 800 yen ($7.30), or even more.

“They truly are trees that grow gold,” said Matsumoto.

Technically, bananas do not grow on trees, although the banana plant is commonly mistaken for a tree.

Organic bananas grown by Kami Banana, the company Matsumoto works for, have a thin skin and plump flesh. The skin can be eaten, and is apparently tasty, even nutritious.

“The bananas grow a thin skin because we don’t use pesticides,” Matsumoto said.

He explained that thicker skins are the way a banana protects itself from pesticides.

Banana bunches are harvested just before they fall to the ground, when the flesh is at its best.

Farming bananas using non-pesticide methods is a laborious business. Matsumoto has to remove pests by hand, which is quite a challenge as he tends to 2,100 plants on a 1.3-hectare plot.

Each plant yields between 120 and 150 bananas in a typical harvest.

Given that organic bananas go for 800 yen a pop and up, a single banana plant has the potential to produce 120,000 yen's worth of the fruit.

The variety grown by Kami Banana is a new strain of Gros Michel developed by D&T Farm Inc., based in Okayama.

Gros Michel was commonly imported to Japan until the 1960s or so. Most bananas available today are of the Cavendish variety.

The tropical plants sold by D&T Farm are more cold-resistant because the seeds and seedlings were frozen at minus 60 degrees. The process dramatically speeds up the growth of the plants in this variable climate.

D&T Farm began marketing the strain in 2017 in the hope of “promoting local production of healthier bananas in Japan.”

It organizes workshops for orchards that purchase the plants. Currently, the variety is grown by 16 farms in Japan, and interest is growing.

Akio Uchida, president of Fukuoka-based construction company Next Engineering Co., is banking on bananas for his company’s future.

From January, the company started growing 530 banana plants in greenhouses on 3,000-square-meter former rice paddies in Kawaminami, Miyazaki Prefecture, that Uchida's elderly parents used to work.

The company’s primary business is drainage works, but sales have dwindled. Uchida explained that once a sewage system is installed, there is little else to do other than occasional maintenance.

As his parents were getting on in years, the rice paddies generally remained uncultivated.

It was while Uchida was exploring how to put the land to good use that he learned about the premium “made-in-Japan” banana.

Today, more than 99 percent of bananas sold in Japan are imported from the Philippines and nations with a similar warm climate.

Most are of the Cavendish variety, which is much favored for its rich texture. But it is under threat from a global epidemic of a new strain of Panama disease that kills banana plants.

Uchida figured that the Cavendish banana will be difficult to come by in Japan in the future, and even if imported, its retail price would be prohibitive.

His company is now preparing to ship the crop from September or so to populated cities in the Kansai and Kanto regions.

Uchida expects to sell each banana for between 700 yen and 1,000 yen, which shows that money does grow on trees, after all.

(This article was written by Makoto Inano and Tomoya Nozaki.)