As I drive into the fields in Keaau, I’m struck by the peaceful surroundings, the fields filled with growing papaya trees loaded with fruit. You can tell their age by how tall they are. At two years old, they’re about 10 feet tall and will grow another 10 feet per year until they reach approximately 40 feet tall; a height that is too tall to pick safely. The Rainbow papaya is a beautiful tree that produces a fruit that I can best describe as a tropical melon, with mango-like juiciness and the sweet flesh of a ripe cantaloupe. You have not eaten papaya until you’ve tried one born and grown in Hawaii with Aloha.
I recall the bad years for the Hawaii Papaya Industry, I was just beginning my involvement with Hawaii agriculture. It was obvious to everyone we had a very real issue. There were no papayas in the markets; the trees were sick. I recall the papaya growers cultivating new fields in Hamakua, far from their traditional Puna region trying to avoid the papaya ringspot virus aka PSRV. This plan worked for a while until the virus took over. There is no cure for PSRV; they tried everything. The devastation to the papaya industry was huge; a double dose to the agriculture sector considering the final sugar cane harvest had occurred only a few years before. Our lands and farmers were in turmoil. Struggling to find solutions for plantation workers and keep our land in agriculture.
Around this time, Dr. Dennis Gonzales’s Rainbow papaya was deregulated and available for growers. A local boy from Hawaii Island and then a Cornell University Professor and scientist he had seen the warning signs years before and worked tirelessly to find a solution through science for Hawaii farmers. Our homegrown hero with the help of many others saved the Hawaii Papaya Industry and for that we will always be thankful.
Dr. G created a papaya with super powers, an imperfect yet perfect fruit with fabulous taste and color. The Rainbow papaya combines the best traits of all Hawaii papaya varieties; Superpowers equal a super fruit. The Hawaii papaya industry produces an exportable crop that also provides an affordable staple food for Hawaii. Exporting a fresh crop from Hawaii is not an easy an easy feat to accomplish as we’re one of the most isolated islands in the world. Hawaii papayas are exported to the Western US, Canada, and Japan; the industry plans on increasing its market and gaining access beyond the Midwest to the East Coast. Currently, they’re seeking to deregulate the Hawaii papaya for exports to China. It’s like the little papaya that could; despite all odds it forges ahead. All while being caught in the cross-hairs of the current food fights. Whether it’s a labeling issue or a gmo issue; this fight is personal to Hawaii papaya farmers, and it’s a battle worth fighting. They’re united to protect the right to farm, their future, and the future of their children. Hawaii is blessed to have a world with Rainbow papaya in it.
Super powers or Super Fruit? You need to taste one for yourself to decide, but in my house it’s both. The real superheroes in all this are the farmers. The industry proudly produces 80+ percent of its papaya’s with super powers, meaning they grow a genetically modified papaya fruit. I’m often struck with guilt as I consume papaya as they’re so affordable and healthy it feels sinfully delicious.
We live in a time where many products seem proud to label their products gluten-free and non-gmo; frankly I’m ashamed at some of the labels I see but that is another conversation. The Hawaii Papaya is a genetically modified product aka gmo; we’re proud of its history, its genetics, and its future.
Hawaii farmers are more united than ever. This food battle might be raging in Courts, the news and social media yet behind the scenes what is raging are fierce farmers with a tenacity to stand tall, proud and united for all of Hawaii Agriculture.
Consumers today want to know their farmer and understand their food, yet I find that many want a romantic version of farming. To move forward, we need to cease the romantic notions of agriculture. While I do find farming romantic, let us be real it’s not always picture perfect. It’s hard, dirty work that’s sometimes smelly and although it’s deeply rewarding it’s often thankless. Do you have any idea how hard it is for a farmer to attend a meeting only to be flogged publicly for their farming choices by people who do not feed or sustain this Country? It sucks to have their life’s work bashed and challenged; to have their integrity questioned. Farmers are tenacious; they stand tall and proudly united to help find peace across the plate. I’ve got news for people who protest American farmers…Don’t tell them how to farm until you’ve walked and farmed in their boots.
The Hawaii papaya industry sits squarely in the middle of the food fights, whether it’s labeling laws or farming bans, you will find a Rainbow papaya. A small trade organization that represents its members, they’re dependent on partners like BIO and friends like you to help them continue to forge ahead for the future of Hawaii agriculture. In celebration of the fact that September is National Papaya Month let’s support the Hawaii Papaya Industry by taking one action this week.
- Eat a Hawaii papaya (since not everyone is lucky enough to have them in their local market; you could ask your local food store to carry Hawaii papaya, helping us expand to new markets)
- Show some love online, Tweet a picture or post a Facebook message using the hashtag #HiPapaya
- Visit Hawaii and taste them for yourself, I’m happy to help direct you to a local market where you can find Hawaii papayas.
Visit Hawaiipapaya.com for more information and recipes.
Lorie Farrell is a food & agriculture advocate residing on the Big Island, of Hawaii. An avid Social media geek & Roller Derby Freak she spends her time advocating for Hawaii’s food system from farm to fork. Currently working with Hawaii Farmers & Ranchers United, an agriculture alliance committed to supporting all farmers and their Right to Farm in Hawaii.