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That's bananas: What it takes to get fruit from thousands of miles away to your kitchen

Garritt Benjamin, the produce manager of Hugo's Family Marketplace on 32nd Avenue in Grand Forks, rearranges bananas Tuesday at his store. Bananas are some of the most popular items for grocery stores, but they also travel the farthest to get on the shelf. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
Garritt Benjamin, the produce manager of Hugo's Family Marketplace on 32nd Avenue in Grand Forks, restocks apples Tuesday at his store. Not every item comes from far away. In fact, items like apples, potatoes, corn and pumpkins are shipped from Minnesota and the Red River Valley. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

That banana at the local grocery store certainly isn't yellow when it begins its long trip from Central America to Grand Forks.

When it's picked and first put into containers, the popular fruit is leaf green and as hard as a rock, said Hornbacher's President Matt Leiseth. Two or three weeks later, the clusters are placed on the shelves of stores, ready to be taken home.

"Banana's are the No. 1 fruit," he said. "Just about everyone loves a banana."

A lot of work goes into delivering fresh produce to grocers, said Cammy Busta, produce director for Hugo's Family Marketplace. That includes the workers who hand-pick produce and pack them in the fields, and the truck drivers who spend countless hours on the road.

Even grocery employees like Garritt Benjamin, produce manager of Hugo's on 32nd Avenue South in Grand Forks, check the shelves throughout the day to make sure they are properly stocked.

"It's pretty amazing what it takes to get them here," Busta said. "It's pretty amazing what technology has done to get us fresh product all year long."

The produce area is manned from before the store opens early in the morning until about 8 p.m., Benjamin said.

"Generally, I have four full-timers on every day," he said. "It's just an all-day process.

"Like I tell everyone, there is always something to do in the produce section."

On the sea, in the air

Bananas travel the farthest distance to get to stores in North Dakota, Leiseth and Busta both said.

The bananas are picked unripened and green before being labeled and bunched. They then are placed into temperature-controlled containers to be shipped on barges to ports in the South or along the East Coast.

Once they reach the ports, they are put in a room into which natural ethylene gas is pumped. This helps the bananas ripen for customers.

"You actually take their temperatures three times a day," Busta said of the gassing process.

Finally, they are shipped to distribution centers, which send them out to grocers across the country.

Blackberries, raspberries and blueberries are flown in from other countries because they have a shorter shelf-life, Busta said.

Those are just some of the examples of how technology has allowed shippers to bring fruit year-round to different parts of the country, but it wasn't always like that, Leiseth said. Even 10 years ago, there were seasons for certain fruits like strawberries, grapes and blueberries.

"You go back 50 years, the availability of produce has completely changed," he said. "Today, strawberries are grown everywhere and they are available almost 52 weeks out of the year."

Because of advancements in refrigeration, those fruits are, for the most part, available all year, Busta said.

"It used to be we didn't have that stuff year-round," she said of fruits like blueberries. "Now we are kind of spoiled."

Like other grocers, Hugo's has a rotation of locations that provide produce to the store, Busta said. For example, citrus fruit like oranges sometimes come from South Africa, but in November they will be able to tap California for navel oranges.

"That's the best kind of orange," she said.

The majority of vegetables come from California, she said, but Hugo's tries to buy as much local produce as possible. That includes pumpkins, gourds, corn, onions and Red River Valley potatoes. They also can tap Minnesota for apples, including honeycrisp.

Hornbacher's does that as well, Leiseth said.

Everyday access

Hugo's receives shipments six days a week, and Hornbacher's has trucks coming in daily. Hornbacher's in Grand Forks gets about 1,000 pounds of bananas a day, Leiseth said.

They are given a quality check before being carted onto the floor. Workers rotate the produce, placing the newer product in the back of the shelves while moving the older produce to the front or off the shelves if it is unsellable, he said.

"The key to it is to always be turning it," Busta said.

With few exceptions, it isn't any more difficult to have produce shipped to North Dakota than other states, Busta said. The weather in the growing states has the largest impact on prices and supply.

Despite all of the work, there are some perks. Grocers get to design colorful displays that are filled with what Benjamin described as "the smells of summer."

"It's like artwork once you get your colors," Busta said.

Busta said people often don't think about how produce gets from the field to the table, but there definitely is a complex process behind it all, she added.

"Getting people to realize the variety of produce that is available today really is a logistics marvel when you think about getting fresh fruit that was grown half a country or half a world away," Leiseth said. "We have access to it every day."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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