As visitors stood beneath rows of stick-thin trees 13 feet high, their fringe of green leaves shading the green fruit hugging each trunk, Houle said papayas are harvested with long aluminum or bamboo poles.
The trees are cut down after three years when the yield drops dramatically and they become too tall to harvest and spray evenly.
“From January to March, prices are up because production is limited,” he said. “When production peaks, from October to December, nobody wants our fruit.”
But the chemical engineer sees lots of potential for the industry. His 45,000-square-foot packing house alone has room for five more heat treatment chambers, he said, and stringent quality controls allow him to trace every fruit in every box back to the field.
“If we pick on Sunday, it’s on retail shelves in L.A. on Wednesday,” Houle said.
He urged importers to be as specific as possible when purchasing papayas to ensure they get the quality and sweetness they want, which will encourage growers to improve.
“Tell buyers you’ll only receive a quarter or half break (in color),” said Houle, who also recommended retailers buy a refractometer to quickly analyze the sweetness of the fruit they receive.
Importer Edwin See, president of San Francisco-based Kiems Produce Co. Inc., said his Chinese customers buy papaya for its health benefits and prefer the small Hawaiian fruit for its size and because it’s grown in the U.S.
“Everybody knows that the quality of U.S. produce is better,” said See.
Papaya specialist Homero Levy de Barros, president of HLB Specialties in Pompano Beach, Fla., said he was impressed with the taste and with the growers he met, and suggested Hawaii market its niche papayas as the best in the world, hand-picked and hand-packed in a special box.
Yonemura also sees potential in producing value-added products from the 3 million pounds of sweet, edible fruit culled annually at packinghouses because of a slight deformity.
After test-marketing IQF Dream frozen papaya cubes in senior’s homes, he said he’d like to see them in school snack programs.
“We need to introduce kids to the taste of papaya,” he said.