"Ohio didn't have a state fruit. Having it officially designated was a good way to educate people about the paw paw...and it helps make Ohio special." ~ Chris Chmiel

Paw Paw Rah Rah

It’s been five long years and a passionate pursuit for Farm Bureau member Chris Chmiel of Integration Acres in Athens County, but it’s now official. (Drum roll, please!)

The pawpaw is Ohio’s official native state fruit!

[Long pause]

The what?

That’s the reaction Chmiel might expect from all but the most dedicated fans of the asimina triloba or the paw paw (also called the Hoosier or Kentucky banana, custard apple or poor man’s banana) but it hardly slows him from growing, promoting and honoring the obscure woodland fruit.

“Historians estimate that the pawpaw has been around for 30,000 years,” Chmiel said. “In 1502, Hernando Desoto wrote that he saw the Indians in the Ohio River Valley gathering paw paws and use them for trade.”

But what is it about the fruit that fuels Chmiel’s drive to making sure it catches the attention of all Ohioans? First of all, he likes the taste…sweet, creamy and rich, a flavor fusion between a banana and a mango.

“I was fresh out of Ohio University (with a specialized degree in Wholistic Transition to Sustainability) and traveling Mexico,” Chmiel said. “I was eating a lot of sour sop and guanabana,” close relatives of the pawpaw and members of the custard apple family, all grown on understory trees found in deep, fertile bottomland and hilly upland habitats. Closer to home, he knew that the same fruit grew easily,  in great abundance and often just fell from the trees and left to rot on the ground. “I just hate waste,” he said.

Chmiel was looking for his niche as a farmer in southeast Ohio. With some research under his belt and a vision in his head, he realized that the pawpaw, which he considered to be an underutilized natural resource, was his opportunity to make a living from the land and keep his values intact. “I could grow them organically, they were a renewable natural resource with a rich history, and they are highly nutritious,” Chmiel said.

In 1995, Chmiel entered the world of niche farming at its best. His farm, Integration Acres, 50 fertile acres characterized by well-drained, sandy soil, is host to woodland mushrooms, black walnut trees, spicebush, which yields edible fragrant bright red berries, and other forest harvested products including firewood, and more than 300 paw paw trees, both wild and cultivated. The 2008 Ohio pawpaw harvest from both Integration Acres and independent growers and foragers totaled about 5,000 pounds, which was sold fresh as well as processed into sauces, jams, relishes and pureed pulp.

“This place has great natural resources for pawpaw genetics,” Chmiel said. “The trees may be tough to get started but once they take hold, they are hard to kill but not invasive.” The trees are fly pollinated, largely disease resistant and host to the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, a woodland species common to southern Ohio. Chmiel’s small herd of milking goats, which provide the essential ingredient for his farmstead cheese, are not tempted by the fruit, bark or foliage of the trees and add just one more component to Chmiel’s quest to successfully integrate animal and plant life on his farm.

Chmiel knew it would take more than just his word about the qualities of the pawpaw to get the attention he wanted so he began to tout the fruit outside the close circle of pawpaw lovers. First to the Albany Village Council where he proposed the paw paw be designated as the official village tree. The people he met from the business and development community worked with Chmiel to hatch a bigger plan, a festival honoring the paw paw.

The festival kicked off in 1999, filled with music, art and all things paw paw including beer, champagne, baked goods and popsicles and more. In 2003, Chmiel, who envisioned bigger plans for the paw paw, invited Sen. Jimmy Stewart (20th District), then a legislator in the Ohio House of Representatives, to sit as a judge for one of the festival’s earlier paw paw tasting contests.

“Ohio didn’t have a state fruit,” Chmiel said. “Having it officially designated was a good way to educate people about the pawpaw…and it helps make Ohio special.”

Stewart agreed to work with Chmiel and in 2004 drafted legislation to introduce at a committee hearing. Chmiel attended the hearing with paw paw samples for the House members. “It was an unusual approach,” Stewart  said, and reactions to the taste were mixed. The proposal didn’t pass then or on a second attempt in 2006.

“Crafting and passing legislation is a messy and cumbersome process,” describes Stewart, “but you have to be persistent.”

In 2007, the proposal was introduced again and reworded to award the paw paw the title of official native state fruit. “There was also a proposal on the table to name the tomato, which is legally a vegetable, but botanically a fruit, as the state fruit,” Stewart said. He tacked the pawpaw proposal on as an amendment to another bill addressing the naming of bridges and license plate changes.

In January 2009, the proposal passed through committee, and onto the Senate as Senate Bill 243, which was signed by Gov. Ted Strickland. It was a victory for both Stewart and Chmiel, who together see the recognition as a way to attract tourists and visitors to the two-day festival.

Will there be special festivities to commemorate this thoughtful, if not hard fought, fight to put paw paws on a pedestal? “Of course,” said Chmiel who, for now, is keeping the plans to himself. “Count on something unusual,” he hints. After all, something ordinary would just not do for this unusual Ohio fruit.

Marilou Suszko is a freelance writer from Vermilion.

Attention teachers and parents: Find out how this story connects to Ohio’s Academic Content standards for social studies. 

Going to the Paw Paw Festival
Mid-September is peak season for the pawpaw harvest and the perfect time for the Annual Paw Paw Festival, which will take place Sept. 12 to 14, 2014 at Lake Snowden in Athens County. It’s all about the pawpaw…paw paw beer, food, music, art, history, workshops and more. Daily admission is $10 or a weekend pass is $20. For more information, including camping accommodations, go to ohiopawpawfest.com.

Pick a Perfect Pawpaw
Paw paw producer Chris Chmiel describes a perfectly ripe pawpaw as one where “your glance causes it to fall off the tree.” It’s no surprise that you rarely, if ever, find the pawpaw in the local grocery. “They don’t transport well and the short shelf life of the fruit is a challenge,” he explained. For those who seek the elusive fruit in the wild or at the farmers market, they’ll find that on the outside it looks like a small green mango with an avocado-like texture to the gold to orange-colored flesh, a few large seeds, a sweet aroma reminiscent of cotton candy or bubble gum. Nutrition dense, it’s high in vitamin C, iron and a good source of potassium. Some enjoy the taste out of hand; others prefer it mixed with other flavors. “Peach Pawpaw popsicles are my favorite,” said Sen. Jimmy Stewart.

Where to find….

According to Chris Chmiel, paw paw popsicles are available at the Athens Farmers’ Market every Wednesday and Saturday. They are also available in various locations in Athens such as the Village Bakery and the Farmacy. In Columbus they are available at the Clintonville Community Co-op, or people can call Integration Acres and we can ship them. 740-698-6060.

“They will definitely be at the festival as well,”he said.

Main Photo: istockphoto.com; Inset Photo: Courtesy of Ohio University Perspectives magazine

Festival photos courtesy of Integration Acres