by Bill Pierce on "Tan-Tar-A"

Any visit to Quirigua is not complete unless you visit the Del Monte banana packing plant right next door. Del Monte's Plant #22 is a fascinating visit into early 1900's automation. What looks to be a highly automated operation really only has four areas that are machine driven. The rest of the operation runs manually, but the combination is designed to maximize productivity of the people.

As you drive past the banana fields you begin to glimpse some of the system of monorails used to carry the banana stalks from the field to the packing plant. Workers cut a banana stalk from the tree and hang it on one of the monorail's hooks. Thus, each stalk goes from tree to train and never touches the ground to insure bruise free bananas. The monorail tracks are light and can be moved to the area where the bananas are being picked each day.

Small engines, with an engineer aboard, pull trains of banana stalks from the fields into the stripping shed. In the shed, the train is broken down to the individual stalks and is rolled, still hanging from overhead tracks, to the cutters. Cutters strip away the protective plastic bags (placed over the bunches in the field to protect them from larger insects a and the inevitable dust) and cut the bunches off the individual stalks. Workers load the stripped stalks into small trucks to be used for mulch.

The bunches go into a washing vat to disinfect them and to allow a long line of sorters to trim and reject those with blemished or flawed skins. Most bunches are 6 to 12 bananas and of uniform size and complexion. An elevated conveyor belt carries the rejected bunches to large trucks for eventual shipment to local markets, El Salvador and Mexico.

The "perfect" bunches float down one of four long pools of water treated to retard ripening. Pool #4 contains extra chemicals for those bananas destined for Europe. A worker weighs a collection of bunches, enough to fill the box arriving on an overhead conveyor, places them inside the pre-installed protective plastic bag and sticks on the familiar company labels.

Those full boxes travel on roller tracks into the waiting box cars of the narrow gauge railroad that will take the bananas to the port town of Santo Tomás on the Caribbean. There they are loaded into containers on a banana boat and are shipped around the world.

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier