Chris Chmiel wants to bring the pawpaw, the tropical-like fruit native to a large part of the eastern United States, its due.
Chmiel and his wife, Michelle, own Integration Acres, a 50-acre farm where, with their children, Griffin, 10, and Hazel, 7, they raise both wild and domesticated varieties of the native fruit whose custard-like pulp tastes similar to apple, banana, mango or melon.
“It’s a great breakfast fruit,” says Chmiel, as he breaks open an oblong-shaped green fruit, revealing a creamy, light orange pulp.
The fruit grows on trees in the understory of woodlands, and was savored by American Indians and pioneers. Though a common indigenous plant, the pawpaw has yet to achieve widespread recognition, in part because its ripened fruit is highly perishable and difficult to transport fresh to market.
Chmiel grows the fruit, processes it into jams, chutney, relish, popsicles and other products, and promotes pawpaws nationally and internationally.
Due largely to his efforts, pawpaws have grown in popularity in the last decade. They were named Ohio’s state native fruit in 2009, have found their way onto restaurant menus, and are being studied by cancer researchers interested in their high antioxidant content. Farmers and landowners have begun to realize that they have a cash crop already on their land, and they’re working to develop their trees and increase yields.
“Before I started, all these pawpaws were just rotting on the ground,” Chmiel says. “Now they have real value.”
Chmiel is committed to pawpaws and other native crops because they allow for sustainable agriculture that benefits the land. “I was really trying to find a way to have a livelihood that was based in sustainability,” he says. “The pawpaw is a great way of doing that.”
Seeing a need for public recognition of his favorite fruit, Chmiel founded the Ohio Pawpaw Festival in 1999 in Albany, Ohio. The September celebration on the banks of Albany’s Lake Snowden draws people from around the world—both those who already love pawpaws and those who want to learn about them.
“We’re on a pawpaw quest,” says Kim Diaz, 53, who traveled to the festival last year from Green Bay, Wis., with her nephew, Nick Howell, 20. “We’re interested in doing edible landscaping, and these seem like a good option.”
During the festival, attendees can sample pawpaw ice cream and pawpaw beer, enter a pawpaw cook-off, purchase pawpaw seedlings, and attend pawpaw cultivation workshops.
Grace Hall, the festival’s vendor coordinator, praises Chmiel’s spirit and commitment to raising pawpaw consciousness. “He loves what he’s doing,” says Hall, 34.
Chmiel says growing interest in pawpaws makes him happy, and he hopes to continue spreading the word about the wild fruit.
“I started this festival to talk about pawpaws, eat pawpaws and be excited about pawpaws,” Chmiel says. “The pawpaw festival is huge in bringing awareness to people. People were laughing at me when it started, but it’s really taken off.”