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Terry Brake’s farmhouse in Blyth, Ont., about 200 kilometres west of Toronto, looks just like any other farm, with stretches of waving green grass, a tractor with a flat bed waiting to get to work and stacks of chopped wood piled neatly for the winter. But when Brake, a mechanical engineer turned farmer, opened the doors to his greenhouse, I realized his farm is anything but ordinary. It’s downright tropical.

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Terry Brake checks on bananas in the greenhouse at Canada Banana Farm.Miranda Keyes

A slap of steamy air hit me as I entered and warm drops of condensation dripped on my face. It smelled like a lush rain forest – a mix of warm soil, vegetation and decaying plants – and giant brown leaves crunched underfoot. Huge bunches of green bananas were dangling from their flowers, teetering trees held giant papayas ripe for picking and pineapples spiked up around my legs. “Smell this,” Brake said, holding out a torn leaf. “What do you think it is?” Inhaling, I couldn’t place my finger on the citrusy aroma. “Orange leaves. We grow lemons and limes, too,” Brake said. I felt like I had been transported to the Caribbean and fancied that somewhere someone was juicing guavas for cocktails.

Brake decided to try his hand at growing tropical fruit in Canada after a car accident 13 years ago left him unable to work. He had to relearn how to walk and talk. For therapy, his doctor gifted him a banana plant to nurture and grow. Brake says it “gave him purpose,” and planted the idea for his new career. With encouragement from his caregiver and now farm/business owner, Laurie Macpherson, Canada Banana Farm was born.

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Deeply coloured papayas grow in hoop houses at Blake's farm in Blyth, Ont.Miranda Keyes

Brake grows the tropical fruit in hoop houses, lightweight greenhouses made of plastic sheets stretched over an arched frame. A wood-burning furnace provides heat during the colder months. “The temperature can reach up to 36 C in the winter,” he says. “The banana leaves at the top act as a warm blanket pushing the heat back down, much like in the tropics, and plants can get a solid 8-10 hours of sun a day.”

Blake’s operation is so impressive, you could imagine he enlisted a team of specialized engineers to build it. The beginnings were much humbler. From the first banana plant he was given in 2007, Brake managed to yield fruit by keeping the tree in his basement by a bright window. From that same plant, Brake pulled side shoots that he planted into new pots. Brake and Macpherson moved to Blyth along with all their potted banana plants in 2010. On trips to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica, Brake sought out advice from local growers. After much trial and error, they set up their first hoop house in 2011 and the following year produced enough bananas to sell at the Clinton Farmers' Market.

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In addition to bananas, Brake has grown papayas, red guavas, mangoes, passion fruit, citrus, avocadoes, lychee and star fruit.Miranda Keyes

Since growing his first banana, Brake has yielded red guavas, mangoes, passion fruit, citrus, avocadoes, lychee and star fruit. He also grows and sells standard produce such as kale, cucumbers and tomatoes. But it’s the tropical fruit that brings curious visitors to the farm.

The first time he showed up at the Clinton & Central Huron Farmers Market with his fruit, “No one believed I was growing them," Brake says. "They thought I was buying them from the store.” To prove skeptics wrong, Brake bought bananas from the grocery store for customers to compare. “My bananas have a creamy texture and taste that blow your mind, unlike anything you’ve ever tasted,” he says. And he’s right. You expect to bite into a somewhat firm banana, but instead get hit with a velvety sweet, pudding-like consistency.

Demand for his locally grown tropical fruit is high. “Once a fight broke out, that’s why we had to put a cap on how many you could buy at a time,” he says. The altercation happened at the Clinton Farmers’ Market, where people would start lining up at the Canada Banana Farm stall before the market officially opened. “We had someone bud the line and try to buy 40 bananas, which made other people upset. That’s when we had to put a limit of eight bananas per person.” Brake downplays their uniqueness: “They’re just bananas, not gold.”

Brake sells his tropical fruits throughout the summer at local farmers markets in Exeter and Goderich as well as through Berry Fresh Fruit Co., who often distribute to markets in Toronto. During the winter, he can also be contacted directly via his Canada Banana Farm Facebook page. He’s been known to ship bananas to almost anywhere in Canada via Purolator overnight.

Currently, Brake is helping farmers in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Quebec to set up their own tropical fruit hoop houses. His hope is that we will no longer have to rely on importing tropical fruit. “If we had a few hundred farmers growing in Ontario, we could be self-sufficient,” he says.

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