Banana growers, suppliers and retailers blame La Niña for wet, cool conditions that have cut into supplies during late fall and early winter.


“There’s been a shortage, and there will continue to be a shortage,” said Bill Sheridan, executive vice president of sales for Coral Gables, Fla.-based Banacol Marketing Corp. “We’ve had some significant flooding that affected production. We also had some cold weather in Costa Rica that affected it down there, as well.


“I’ve never heard so many weather-related issues from Brazil and Australia.”


It’s the same story in Colima, Mexico, where San Diego-based Organics Unlimited grows much of its banana inventory, said Mayra Velazquez de Leon, president.


“There are factors like weather that have really affected production, and prices have skyrocketed,” she said. “But it’s something people really want.”


Prices have gone up about $4 per case from last year, Velazquez de Leon said.


“It’s all due to weather problems.”


Velazquez even reports some chill damage.


“Bananas need warm weather to grown and ripen properly,” she said. “Chilled bananas tend to be off color and never ripen to the bright yellow that we normally see in the markets. While we are picking the best of the production to ship to the U.S., it is often hard to tell prior to ripening what the appearance will be.”


The chill does damage taste, she said.


As of Feb. 7, 40-pound cartons of bananas from Costa Rica were $16.50 and the same size package from Honduras was $15-16, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year earlier, the same product from all locations was $13.50.


Dave Hahn, buyer with Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Produce Inc., said the supply-demand balance forces prices upward.


“What happens is when they’re short, they rush into Ecuador to help get fruit to satisfy the spot market and the contract market. And what that does is, obviously, growers in Ecuador, they have all these big players come in and say they need banana,” Hahn said. “And that causes the price to go up.


“That’s kind of what we’re in right now is that Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte, Banacol and Turbana have initiated this emergency surcharge of $1.43 a box to $1.50 a box. Right away, everybody buys bananas, and that helps offset maturing fruit out of Ecuador until volumes get back to normal out of their main producing areas.”


Hahn said prices were going up even before the surcharges hit.


“Before the emergency surcharges were put in place, the price did jump a couple of dollars per box,” he said. “And it was just very, very short. If it did get through, you just sold it out. It made everyone close to the vest satisfy customers. That only lasted for about a month until the vessels started getting here from Ecuador.”


Suppliers have had to scramble to keep up with demand, Hahn said.


“We’re suffering from the La Niña effect in the tropics, and months ago it caused a lot of cool weather and a lot of rain,” he said. “Costa Rica, Honduras (and) Guatemala have had a lot of rain, and that’s caused issues with the banana plants themselves.


If supplies come up short, gaps can result because bananas take time to mature, Hahn noted.


“Cool weather basically stunts that process by bananas reaching maturity on time and sizing, so in Colombia that basically caused not enough fruit to pack a No. 1 box but increased supplies on No. 2 fruit.”