SUSAN SALISBURY The Palm Beach Post
PAHOKEE, Fla. - The farms around Lake Okeechobee in western Palm Beach County are known for producing sugar cane and vegetables, but at NK Lago Farms, the crop is bananas and plantains, something not grown in big supply in Florida.
Nick Larsen and his wife Kiley Harper-Larsen, both 29, started the part-time venture in 2009. In a good year they sell about 70,000 bananas and plantains.
NK Lago's top seller is the Hua Moa or "Hawaiian" plantain, a favorite in Cuban, Caribbean and Central and South American communities, but generally not found in supermarkets. The plump plantain is used to make tostones. The plantains are sliced, fried, mashed and fried again until crispy. The Dwarf Puerto Rican Plantain along with the African Rhino Horn Plaintain are also popular.
"Right after we got married in 2007, we rented a house in Pahokee that had 25 banana trees. I thought it wasn't much work. It seemed pretty easy," Nick Larsen said.
Nick Larsen, a biological scientist at the University of Florida's Everglades Research & Education Center in Belle Glade, found out that bananas as a crop require the least financial input in relation to the return. Not only that, the trees produce year-round. He's growing 31 varieties, some experimental.
Bananas and plantains grow incredibly fast. In less than a year, some plants can produce fruit. Although it's not something Florida is known for, small farmers in South Florida plant a total of 500 or so acres, Larsen said.
Now that they have close to 700 trees, some planted right next to the Lake Okeechobee dike at the home they bought on Main Street in Pahokee, and another 2.5 acres in a remote location, they have found there is a lot of work involved. The weeds must be kept at bay with little use of herbicides, which would kill the plants. Larsen must pull weeds by hand and keep the farm mowed.
Harper-Larsen, business development representative for the Southern U.S. region and Canada at Primus Labs, a food safety auditing and testing services company for the produce industry, handles the sales and marketing.
"He's the brains and the brawn," she said of her husband.
Paul Allen of R.C. Hatton Farms, a Pahokee-based vegetable grower, partnered with the couple at the start, provided land, labor and equipment and even sent some of their produce with his to The Breakers, Harper-Larsen said. Then he leased land to them.
"We owe a lot to Paul. He gave us an opportunity. Farmland is so hard to come by. He believed in us," Harper-Larsen said.
Lake Okeechobee provides a microclimate that protects the plants from damaging freezes. The temperature doesn't drop below 40 degrees. The rich muck soil also is ideal, although some nutrients, such as potassium, must be added.
"Cold is the enemy of the banana. It would have black spots, and no one would buy it. The American consumer is finicky. They want things that look perfect and have no pesticide residue," Larsen said.
Their crops are "nature friendly," meaning they use such products as herbicides only when absolutely necessary. The fruit is covered with freeze cloth bags Larsen makes to protect it from insects.
They sell the produce at the Wellington Green Market from November through April, through some community sponsored agriculture share programs, and on weekends from their home farm. At the farm, they sell the produce for $10 a stalk. At the green market, the bananas go for $1 a hand (a cluster of five to seven of fruit). Hua Moa plantains are 50 cents per piece and Macho plantains are three for $1.
Even the plants' leaves and flowers are sold. The leaves are used as wrap for Puerto Rican dishes and the flowers are prized by chefs for use in salads or as a container.
Kim Erickson, co-owner of Erickson Farm in Canal Point says that the Larsens produce a top quality product because of the attention and effort they put into it.
"They're not the same kind of bananas you find in the grocery store. They have a better flavor," Erickson said.