Fair Trade-certified bananas, long a success in Europe, are growing in North America for the third year in a row.

Hanna Freeman, director of produce and floral for Oakland, Calif.-based Fair Trade USA, formerly Transfair USA, said Fair Trade conventional banana sales grew 97% in 2009, and she sees continued growth for 2010 in sales of conventional and organic Fair Trade bananas.

“The trend is so strong that, even though the struggling economy may slow its growth, Fair Trade is still on a nice upward cycle,” Freeman said.

In 2009, 49 million pounds of Fair Trade bananas were certified from Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru, according to Fair Trade numbers, while an additional 12 million pounds of organic Fair Trade bananas were certified. As a result, the organization gave its Latin American growers $1 million for scholarships, small business loans, environmental programs and community development projects.

Freeman sees Fair Trade bananas as a way for retailers to enliven an everyday category with its compelling storyline.

“When we work with retailers willing to put up some of our gorgeous pictures and talk about improving lives and protecting the planet, we get a nice jump in sales,” she said.

“Consumers have a hard time resisting a message of: ‘Buy these bananas and help a 13-year-old girl stay in school.’”

To celebrate Fair Trade Month, Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing for Albert’s Organics Inc., Bridgeport, N.J., is distributing in-store signs to its supermarket and natural food customers.

“We hope that the monthlong celebration and awareness campaign will help consumers understand not only the quality of the Fair Trade organic bananas that go into their shopping carts but the value it brings to underdeveloped communities,” said Weinstein.

Turbana Corp., another passionate Fair Trade banana supporter, is thrilled with the program’s success at retailers such as Whole Foods.

“Their enthusiasm for free trade and their success has made other retailers wonder if they should get into it, too,” said Scott DiMartini, Turbana’s regional sales manager in Baltimore.

Contrary to popular perception, Whole Foods’ prices for Fair Trade conventional bananas are the same as other local retailers, DiMartini said.

Though Banacol Marketing Corp. and San Diego-based Organics Unlimited Inc. also run their own programs to benefit growers, Organics Unlimited president Mayra Velazquez de Leon said she is being pushed to carry Fair Trade bananas by a major customer, and her new plantation in Colima is about to be the first Fair Trade-certified farm in Mexico.

“There are still a few legal hoops” she said, “but we’re getting there.”

Art DiCesare, produce category merchant for Wegmans Supermarkets, Rochester, N.Y., said his decision not to carry Free Trade bananas beside Dole organic and conventional bananas is not based on price.

“The presentations we’ve heard indicate that the prices are reasonably close to organic numbers,” DiCesare said, “but I don’t feel comfortable introducing a third level of complexity and identification to our training processes and cashiers up front. And the customers in the areas we serve are not demanding Fair Trade products.”