Monday, May 07, 2001
Pawpaws may help tobacco growers
By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT Way down yonder, in the pawpaw patch, researcher Kirk Pomper envisions a resurgence of the tender, pulpy fruit as a possible alternative crop for Kentucky's tobacco growers.
Mr. Pomper, a Kentucky State University horticulturist who tends the eight-acre pawpaw orchard at the school's research farm, said the market is ripe for a pawpaw revival.
The pawpaw is in its infancy with most consumers, though the fruit was part of the diet of American Indians long before white settlers arrived.
Pawpaw proponents say the fruit's potential is as vast as its diversity. Pawpaws can be munched raw. They also can be used in baked goods, ice cream, yogurts, juices, jams and many other foods.
I think it will become a standard part of our American diet, said Neal Peterson of Franklin, W.Va., a pawpaw grower and founder of the PawPaw Foundation. It's not going to be like apples and oranges, but I think it will become a popular fruit item.
The pawpaw, a native North American fruit with a tropical taste, is often likened to a combination of banana, mango and pineapples. Some pawpaw varieties have a hint of melon or citrus taste, Mr. Peterson said.
Pawpaw trees grow wild in the nation's eastern half, from the Deep South to southern Michigan to the eastern fringes of Nebraska and Kansas.
The pawpaw is the country's largest edible tree fruit. The oblong fruit green outside and yellow inside is normally 3 to 6 inches long and weighs up to a pound, though the average is 6 to 8 ounces.
The problem is that supply can't meet potential demand, advocates say.
Mr. Pomper said a fruit and vegetable supplier to Wal-Mart contacted him about the availability of pawpaws, and Ocean Spray expressed interest in a drink blending pawpaws and cranberries. Large-scale sales are held back by a lack of growers, he said.
For now, the pawpaw is a niche crop, sold mainly to farmers markets, restaurants and specialty stores.
In Kentucky, three com mercial pawpaw orchards have been planted, but only one is mature enough to produce fruit, Mr. Pomper said.
It takes about seven years for a pawpaw seedling to produce fruit, and about four years for a grafted tree, Mr. Peterson said. Once mature, a tree can produce up to 30 pounds of pawpaws for the late-summer or fall harvest, Mr. Pomper said. He said nearly 300 trees can be planted per acre and estimates a tree will remain productive for 20 years.
Mr. Pomper said the pawpaw could join vegetables, berries and grapes as an alternative for tobacco farmers struggling with steep production cuts.
It's definitely not a replacement for tobacco, but pawpaws may be one of the dozen crops that will help alleviate that problem, he said.
Another plus: The bark, leaves and twigs of pawpaw trees have pesticidelike compounds that repel insects and diseases. Mr. Pomper said those compounds could be extracted for use in commercial insecticides.
One drawback: Pawpaws have a short shelf life two or three days which makes it difficult to get the fresh fruit to urban markets. Refrigerated, however, it lasts up to three weeks.
The pawpaw is touted for its nutritional value. It's higher in some vitamins, minerals and amino acids than apples, grapes and peaches.
Mr. Pomper said it takes time to develop a following, but he thinks the pawpaw could someday gain a place on the fruit shelves of grocery stores.
I think the market is there, it's just a matter of education, Mr. Pomper said. I think there is money to be made in pawpaws.
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