Published December 2, 2013
The temperature outside hovered around 5°C, but inside the greenhouses that dot the South Iceland town of Hveragerði, you can taste the humidity. A hotbed of geothermal activity located on a 5,000-year-old lava field, the town has espoused the title ‘hot springs capital of the world.’ I had come to Hveragerði to visit one greenhouse in particular, a 1,100-square-metre tropical greenhouse and the largest banana farm in Europe outside of the Canary Islands. I had come to Hveragerði in pursuit of the elusive Icelandic banana.
My first fill of Icelandic banana talk came at a bar. Someone launched into a conversation about Iceland’s attempt in the early 2000s to become carbon neutral and begin growing all previously imported produce domestically. We talked about the near-self sufficiency with which Iceland had been using greenhouses and geothermal energy to produce tomatoes and cucumbers and—bananas? With the self-certainty that follows a few beers, someone posited that Iceland was, in fact, the largest banana producer in Europe.
The next morning I went to Bónus, 10-11 and Krónan to see if I could find an Icelandic banana. I found only the fruit-laden head of Chiquita stuck to every yellow peel. I asked several supermarket employees where I could find the Icelandic bananas. They looked at me with expressions that said the Icelandic banana was right next to the grave of the Icelandic Jimmy Hoffa.
Before I dove into the topic with Icelanders again, I needed to make sure I wouldn’t come off as completely… bananas. I found a June 2010 article in the Christian Science Monitor titled, “Wait, Bananas Grow In Iceland?” in which the author and his Icelandic cohort claimed to have seen piles of bananas being burned outside of Hveragerði. “That’s the way it is here,” the Icelander explains in the article. “The price of bananas has collapsed, so the farmers are burning them to create a shortage.”
Furthermore, I discovered claims that circa 2005, the Icelandic government was set to begin implementing large-scale banana production to end the import of some 4.7 million tons of bananas to the country each year. In 2005, Icelanders each ate about 13.5 kilos of the fruit, making them the Western hemisphere’s number one per capita banana consumers, according to a report by the UN Food And Agriculture Organization.
More research revealed that, in December 2006, the BBC quiz show QI further perpetuated Iceland’s mythical banana kingdom by making it a game-winning question. Host Stephen Fry asked a contestant, “Which is the biggest banana republic in Europe?” to which the correct answer was, seemingly, Iceland. This ignited a wave of speculation in forums and chat rooms related to the show. How could you grow bananas in Iceland? Could you grow a watermelon in the Sahara?
An appeal for the truth
I tested my banana research on random Icelanders. When I asked if they knew or believed that Iceland was producing hoards of bananas, the response was equal parts rejection of the claim and slight belief that it could be true. “How come I’m still buying Chiquita at the grocery store?” they would ask.
“Maybe they’re not allowed to sell the bananas,” I would counter. I had no other explanation.
“That’s ridiculous,” we would laugh together with nervous speculation. But what if this was all some United Fruit Co. driven, agricultural imperialism? Sixty percent of the world’s bananas come from South America. If Iceland could begin producing bananas for large swaths of Europe, what would that do to the South American banana market?
Before I retreated to a dark room to pour over Illuminati theories and re-watch Zeitgeist, I decided to just get in touch with Iceland’s foremost banana expert. Her name is Dr. Guðríður Helgadóttir and she is the head of the Faculty of Vocational and Continuing Education at the Agricultural University workstation in Hveragerði.
Within the first ten minutes of our meeting, Guðríður cleared the air on everything.
Behold, the truth of the Icelandic banana
In 1885, the Icelandic Horticultural Society was founded. By the 1930s, the Society had discovered the ability to heat green houses with geothermal energy and, in the beginning, they thought they had the potential to grow anything this way. “Wherever there was geothermal energy,” Guðríður says, “people were building greenhouses.”
They were looking to grow crops that would generate the most income per square metre, and one crop they were hopeful for was bananas. By the 1940s, experiments with small-scale banana production were under way and agricultural textbooks began to speculate on the future of Icelandic banana production.
What these textbooks never went on to mention was what Icelandic growers learned several years into their banana experiments that growing bananas would never be commercially viable in Iceland because it takes too long to grow them with the whack sun schedule. It’s too dark in the winter even with artificial light and, in Hveragerði, it takes 1.5–2 years to get a crop from each banana plant compared to only a few months in South America or Africa. Large-scale production of bananas for export was abandoned.
When Guðríður was training at an arboretum in southern England, however, several of the staff there believed Iceland was still cranking out sweet, starchy fruits for the continent. In an effort to learn more about Iceland before her arrival, they had read a book on horticulture written in the 1940s that claimed Iceland would be at the forefront of European banana production in the future. They had no reason to believe this had not become the case.
By the late 1940s, however, most Icelanders who had tried to grow bananas on their own simply gave up and donated their plants to the Horticultural College (that became the Agricultural University) and today, the University is still saddled with the plants. They live in a tropical greenhouse with a few orange and fig trees and the nearly one ton of bananas grown there annually are eaten only by students, faculty and visitors. Because the University is government-funded, they are not allowed to sell bananas for profit, but the bananas are definitely eaten, not burned.
Guðríður is used to fielding questions from speculators of the Icelandic banana. Several years ago she got a call from a location scout who was helping to plan a travel show about Iceland. He was interested in visiting one of Iceland’s giant banana plantations. “I told him I could show him our banana room,” she says. Of the tropical greenhouse’s 1,100 square metres, about 600–700 are for the banana plants. To put this into scale, a ‘big’ banana farm in Guatemala is about 100 square kilometres.
Before I left the tropical greenhouse at Hveragerði, I picked a banana right off the plant, which is what everyone dreams of when they come to Iceland. Unlike me, it hadn’t crossed an ocean to be there. It was small and sweet and its peel was tough and in all of these ways, perhaps it was a more fundamentally ‘Icelandic banana’ than I could have imagined.