Over the past 100 years, ‘ulu and many of Hawai‘i’s other heritage crops have taken a back seat to imported, highly processed factory foods, which has had negative impacts on the local economy and community health. With revived interest in indigenous rights and local, national, and global food systems in recent decades, traditional Hawaiian crops are garnering attention and momentum. In 2016, the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Producers Cooperative was formed to build a network of small-scale diversified farms on Hawai‘i Island that grow breadfruit and want to improve community access to this amazing, nutritious food. The Co-op has grown rapidly as demand for ‘ulu – or breadfruit –increases just as fast. This group of farmers are bringing ‘ulu back, with a vengeance.
By Michelle Curran
‘Ulu (breadfruit) has a long history in Hawai’i, introduced approximately a thousand years ago by Polynesian seafarers.
It played an important role in pre-contact food security and sustainability.
Not only did ‘ulu become a staple in the Hawaiian peoples’ diet but the plant was used for numerous other purposes, including caulking for canoes, glue for bird traps, wood for surfboards, and sap for medicine.
‘Ulu grows well in a range of tropical and sub-tropical environments – in Hawai’i this includes most climates around the state between sea-level and nearly 2,000ft elevation – the crop flourishes there.
It is one of the world’s few staple crops which grow on perennial trees, so it does not need to be replanted every year.
A single ‘ulu tree can live for 50 to 100 years or more and produce hundreds, even over a thousand, pounds of fruit annually, while also helping to sequester carbon and reduce the need to till soil or control weeds.
The trees’ tolerance to heat and drought make them a favoured orchard crop in tropical communities most vulnerable to famine and climate change.
With the introduction of imported and highly processed foods, people have consumed less ‘ulu and other heritage crops, which over time, has affected the economy and the health of the people who live in the Hawaiian Islands.
People are realising the benefits of a traditional diet, which of course, includes the abundant ‘ulu.
In 2015, Dana Shapiro and her husband Noa Lincoln, a professor in indigenous crops, began Mala Kalu’ulu, a breadfruit farm, after winning Kamehameha Schools’ Mahi Ai Match-up contest.
The couple received a 3.7 acre plot in south Kona, with five years’ rent waived, and $25,000 in seed money.
The land is situated in the Kona historic ‘ulu belt, once a half-mile wide and 18 miles long, and by some estimates, used to produce 36,000 tons of ‘ulu a year.
After one year, Dana and Noa ran into a few obstacles – including the highly seasonal nature of ‘ulu.
Large quantities of the fruit usually come into maturity from July through October, resulting in a glut of the crop from late summer to fall and hardly any for the rest of the year.
They could steam and freeze the fruit to stretch the season, but they still did not have the volume to supply a growing year-round demand.
Dana began reaching out to others in the community, to see what other ‘ulu supply was on Hawai’i Island, and met two other farmers who were in similar position – young families starting out and passionate about ‘ulu.
Having previously consulted for rural producers and worked with different cooperatives around the state, Dana saw the potential and in July 2016, Mala Kalu’ulu, along with eight other pilot member farms from around Hawai’i Island, formed Hawai’i ‘Ulu Producers Cooperative (HUPC).
The now HUPC Manager Dana says the Co-op has since grown to include 80 members on both Hawai’i Island and Maui.
“We founded the Co-op as we were all interested in working together to leverage our collective capabilities to create a commercial ‘ulu industry to enhance Hawaii’s food security today, as it did in the past not so long ago,” Dana says.
“We have a mission to revitalise ‘ulu as a viable crop and dietary staple for Hawai’i; while our vision is a thriving ‘ulu co-op that sustains and uplifts producers, consumers and society as a whole.”
As a co-op, the farmers own the business and elect a board of directors from the general membership each year. Dana has been hired to run the operations.
“We currently have about 10 employees who aggregate farmers’ fruit, process, pack and market the co-op’s products as well as provide education for farmers and the community,” she explains.
It was determined a co-op structure was the right business model for HUPC due to its primary goal of developing a sustainable ‘ulu industry in Hawai‘i that supports farmers and the community.
To do this, a large number of small, diversified ‘ulu producers working together to meet Hawai‘i’s demand for nutritious food (rather than a small number of large plantations) is required.
By coming together in a co-op, local producers are able to develop economies of scale, ensure year-round production, attain bargaining power, and leverage each other’s social, economic, political, and other resources to bring the project to fruition and benefit more of Hawai‘i’s communities.
The benefits of belonging to the Co-op are ten-fold.
Farmers receive a premium price and guaranteed market for their produce; they can access technical assistance, ongoing training in sustainable production practices and customised guidance and support from leading researchers and agronomists in the field; and their marketing, sales, education, outreach, and administration is all taken care of for them.
They share in the earnings of the business and have a single taxation advantage.
Participating in the governance of a new, exciting, local farmer-owned and -operated venture while collaborating with other community groups to move Hawai‘i’s food system in the right direction is also a positive outcome of being part of the Co-op.
In the beginning, Sweet Cane Cafe, a farm-to-table restaurant in Hilo, served as the sole receiving point and processor.
In 2017, the Co-op built its own processing facility in south Kona to handle a greater volume and provide an additional place farmers could drop off fruit.
Although HUPC offers fresh ‘ulu available in baby, mature and ripe stages, the already prepared and frozen fruit make up 75 percent of sales.
‘Ulu is pressure washed to remove the latex and debris, peeled with hand-cranked peelers, cut by hand, steamed and flash-frozen.
Most buyers prefer ‘ulu cored and quartered, though HUPC also offers it in other forms including sliced, diced, mashed and cut for fries.
The Co-op has also developed a line of ‘ulu-based products, ‘Ulu Lā – the Age of ‘Ulu in Hawaiian.
Products include Traditional and ‘Inamona-Macnut Hummus and Chocolate Mousse – and they are made with locally-grown, farm-fresh ‘ulu, and are free of dairy, eggs, gluten, and GMOs, and are ready to eat straight out of recycled-content/recyclable packaging.
The Co-op currently has approximately 150 unique customers throughout Hawai’i State.
“Fifty percent of our market is taken by the Hawai’i Department of Education as we supply all public schools across the state,” Dana says.
“In addition, we work with five private and public hospitals while about half our customers are restaurants and hotels that incorporate ‘ulu onto their menus as a way to support local farmers and serve authentically Hawaiian crops to their customers.
“We’re committed to making ‘ulu as accessible as possible to the community – we don’t want ‘ulu to be a niche product only available for high-end hotels.”
From a nutritional perspective, ‘ulu is a complex carbohydrate with high amounts of dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals, particularly phosphorous, magnesium, vitamin A and beta-carotene.
It has a relatively low glycaemic index making it good for pre-diabetics and those with other diet related diseases like obesity, and it is relatively high in protein for a fruit.
‘Ulu is incredibly versatile from a culinary standpoint, so in addition to the health, environmental and local economic benefits it is truly a delicious and underutilised food.
It offers a healthier alternative to starches such as potatoes, wheat, and white rice, and can be used to make soups, salads, stews, casseroles, lasagne, burgers, hummus, pickles, gnocchi—even gluten-free flour and healthier versions of chips, breads, chocolate mousse, and ice cream.
“We find many chefs enjoy expressing their culinary creativity and skills through this indigenous staple crop,” she adds.
Recently, the HUPC took part in the second annual Hawai’i Kuauli Pacific & Asia Cultural Festival’s Taste of the Pacific and Asia event.
Staged in Kona, local chefs came together at the event to showcase their creations, made from locally-sourced foods.
Chefs such as Muzzy Fernandez, the Executive Chef at Kona Coast’s Club Hokuli’a, says he sources the ‘ulu he uses in his cuisine from the Co-op as do most of the other chefs who cooked at the event.
Muzzy’s feature dish at the Taste event and one which he prepares at Club Hokuli’a was Pigs in da Blanket – pork in an ‘ulu crepe.
Although the Co-op has undergone rapid growth in the three years since it started and member farms continue to ramp up ‘ulu production, HUPC still relies on start-up grant funds and loans from community members and the Department of Agriculture to support its operations.
Dana estimates HUPC will achieve economies of scale when it is able to sell 100,000 pounds a year; currently, the main bottleneck is supply.
Among the 35 members, about 2,500 trees have been planted, but only 400 are mature.
Unfortunately, with the 2018 volcanic eruption on Hawai’i Island, member farms in Puna were covered by lava, and HUPC lost about 20 percent of production – a setback for the industry as a whole, but not unexpected in agricultural sector susceptible to natural and climatic events.
Dana says in five years, the Co-op hopes to be self-sustaining.
It projects having over one million pounds of ‘ulu per year based on members’ existing plantings, so helping to drive market demand for this large volume will be a big part of the Co-op’s work over the next few years.
“I can see this coming from both further value added product development as well as public education and promotion around the benefits of ‘ulu and all the wonderful dishes that can be made from it.”
Having already provided the Hawaiian people with so much, it is encouraging to see one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly foods on the planet making its comeback, thanks to a group of committed farmers, with a passion for all things ‘ulu.
2 cups mochiko flour
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ lb steamed or boiled ripe ‘ulu, mashed with a fork
¾ cup coconut milk
¼ cup (half a stick) butter, melted
Optional: 3 tablespoons black sesame seeds
Butter an 8×8” baking pan and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl, whisk together mochiko, sugars, baking powder, and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, beat together the ripe ‘ulu, coconut milk, eggs, butter, and vanilla until smooth (a stand- or hand-mixer is helpful, but a blender works as well). Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet and beat vigorously until completely smooth. Fold in the sesame seeds (if using) and pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 75 minutes, until the mochi is set and bounces back when touched. Cool for 10 minutes, then cut into squares, dust with powdered sugar, and serve. Makes 16 servings.
Visit HUPC for more ‘ulu recipes.