Though Fair Trade-certified bananas represent less than 1% of U.S. banana sales, preliminary numbers for the first half of 2011 show a 20% increase over the same period last year, much of it in organic bananas.

“We’ve seen Fair Trade make a huge difference to small family farms,” said Hannah Freeman, director of produce for Fair Trade USA, Oakland, Calif.

“They know they have a price and a little extra they can count on for community development, building packing sheds and protecting the forest around their farm.”

To boost volumes and appeal to retailers who want that feel-good halo without paying a 20% premium for organic, Freeman said Fair Trade USA plans to introduce a new price structure in 2012 for Fair Trade-certified conventional bananas.

Details should be available within the next month, she said.

Scott DiMartini, southeast U.S. sales manager Turbana Corp., Coral Gables, Fla., said he’s seeing consistent growth in volume for conventional Fair Trade bananas from Colombia, and Turbana’s success with these high-profile retailers is opening doors to new customers.

“Fair Trade is a concept and philosophy at the forefront of a lot of consumers’ minds,” DiMartini said. “The more socially and environmentally aware they are, the more they demand these items.”

San Diego-based grower and importer Organics Unlimited brought the first Fair Trade-certified organic bananas from Mexico this year.

Though sales have been slow, president Mayra Velazquez de Leon said the certification allows her to offer a broad organic selection: the Fair Trade label; the GROW bananas, which also benefit small farmers and cost about $4 a case less; and her company’s regular brand.

West Bridgewater, Mass.- based Oke USA Fruit. Co., which imports Fair Trade organic bananas under the brand of its majority owner, Equal Exchange, has created a more stable supply this year by partnering with two grower cooperatives in Peru and one in Ecuador, said chief operating officer Jessica Jones-Hughes.

“Being a small shipper without our own boats or systems is a constant challenge, but we’ve been consistent in our ability to deliver to customers,” Jones-Hughes said.

She said Fair Trade organic bananas are selling for up to $1.29 a pound this year.

Jon Croft, vice president produce of Rockville, Md.-based MOM’s Organic Market, sells an average of 230 cases of Equal Exchange bananas a week at a loss-leader price of 79 cents a pound to compete with big-name retailers near of MOM’s eight stores.

Though he’s impressed with Oke’s commitment to the cause, Croft said retailers considering Fair Trade should expect some bumps in the road in terms of quality and supply.

“Folks who carry conventional or even an organic Dole banana are going to have more surface scarring than they’re used to,” he said. “The fact is, the way the bananas are harvested and transported to packing stations is often much more rudimentary in these smaller co-ops than you get from a standard banana plantation.”

For MOM’s, however, the trade-off is worth it, Croft said.

Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing for Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics, attributes the growth in Fair Trade organic sales over the past few years to Albert’s promotion of the brand.

“If you simply put a little sign up over Fair Trade bananas and expect them to move, that’s not going to happen,” Weinstein said. “Consumers need to be educated about why it’s important and how their shopping dollars are going to benefit the farmers and their communities,” she said.

The organic distributor offers signs, fliers and a video shot on farms in Peru and Ecuador that can be played in the produce department, she said.