Susan Owen and Charles Coffey, The Lily Patch Farm
Grant Award: $6,000 —Expanding Organic Production of Pawpaws
Susan expanded her current pawpaw production by planting additional trees, doubling the size of her orchard so that she is more than halfway to her goal of 100 trees. She is also expanding sales of fresh fruit, pulp and seeds as well as starting production of trees to establish a small pawpaw seedling nursery.
Pawpaws are experiencing a resurgence after the native fruit was almost forgotten due to the fruit’s inability to be commercially shipped on a large scale to groceries. Susan thinks that pawpaws have a lot of potential in all sorts of markets—the fruit and pulp can be sold to local food markets; the tree seedlings can be marketed to landscapers and homeowners; and the seed can go to plant breeders.
Susan is purchasing a food mill and vacuum sealing equipment so that the fruit’s pulp and seed can be packaged separately. She is separating the pulp from the seed and then storing them in vacuum-sealed bags of predetermined weights. This system allows for more sales of both the pulp and seed, cuts down on time it takes her to pulp by hand, and enables her to expand her market for seed sales.
Susan is also increasing the awareness of the native fruit through open houses and with a dedicated website. She has registered the domain name perfectpawpaws.com. The pawpaw is United States’ largest native fruit, with a taste that combines banana, mango and pineapple with hints of vanilla or caramel. The texture is similar to custard, as pawpaws are a temperate cousin of the tropical Custard Apple Family.
Pawpaws are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and current research shows they contain a powerful anti-carcinogenic phytochemical being studied as a cancer treatment. The trees do not have significant pests or diseases. Since they are the only host for the Zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar, pawpaws are critical to the survival of this species of butterfly.
The trees start fruiting approximately five years after planting sizable seedlings and grow to maturity in approximately 10 years. Susan currently has three mature trees from which she is harvesting fruits. In 2016, she sold approximately 100 pounds of fresh pawpaws to Appalachian Mountain Brewery for a flavored Saison style beer.
Susan plans to sell pawpaw trees, fruit and seed during seasonal open houses and regional farm tours; at workshops, lectures and festivals such as the NC Pawpaw Festival; and wholesale, starting with Mustard Seed Market in Blowing Rock. She anticipates expanding sales to other local and regional markets, landscapers and nurseries.
In 1985, Susan purchased an abandoned tobacco farm and named it for the wild Turk’s Cap lilies that flourish there.She began growing Goldenseal and Echinacea and was certified organic in 1988, becoming the first Certified Organic farm in Watauga County.
“My personal goal is to move my farm in a more sustainable direction, and to guarantee that our family farm will continue for future generations,” Susan said. By shifting work away from physically demanding vegetables to the nursery and orchard upkeep, she and her husband can continue to work on the farm as they age.