On a recent visit to the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative, I was struck by the wealth of information that employees Rebekah Zornes and Chelsea Edinger offered. They work in order fulfillment and sales and are excited about the coop and their products. We perused their large freezers and refrigerators full of their main crop, breadfruit, but also stocked with sweet potatoes, kabocha squash, taro and avocados.
As they walked me through the cooperative’s (coop’s) daily routine, Zornes pointed out, “It all starts with farmer intake, cleaning and peeling the crops.”
Some crops then enter their certified kitchen where most are par-steamed in commercial steamers before being packaged and frozen or prepared into value added products. The cut ulu is often stored frozen but is frequently used as an important ingredient in their products like ulu hummus and ulu chocolate mousse. Also, some is dried and ground into flour. Everything is stored in their freezers.
We spent a few minutes of our tour marveling at the new automated ulu peeler.
“The peeler design is based on one that peels cantaloupe, only a little gentler,” Edinger said.
Following the tour, we sat down to chat and enjoy some ulu mousse. I can vouch for the yummy mousse and have several friends who swear by their ulu hummus. I used my sample of ulu flour to make pancakes, which were also delicious. Ulu has many uses beyond the recipes we may have tried in the past. The Coop even offers a packet of recipe cards with a variety of preparation ideas for breadfruit. Maybe it’s time to consider adding this healthy native Hawaiian staple to more of our meals.
The various ways the coop prepares and freezes ulu allows it to be available for year round consumption. Ulu harvest usually takes place during six months of the year, July through December. To expand their service to the community, the Coop now includes other starches and local crops that ripen throughout the year and also have multiple uses.
Since many of the members have diversified farms, the coop currently takes taro, sweet potatoes and kabocha squash from them for processing. Avocados have been recently added to their intake as a pilot crop. Several of these crops combine well with ulu to make tasty dishes.
‘Ulu has often been used by native Hawaiians for baby food. Currently, the Coop is contributing to the development of commercial baby food products through its partnership with Punahele Provisions – a new local baby food manufacturer located on Oahu.
“Workers at the Coop are a great help as they are always coming up with new product ideas,” said Coop Manager Dana Shapiro.
The Coop opened in 2016 with Shapiro as general manager. She and her husband Noa Lincoln started their joint breadfruit journey when they won the Kamehameha Schools Mahi‘ai Matchup contest in 2015. They were awarded a four-acre piece in South Kona and started adding breadfruit trees to those already on the land. Once they started harvesting, the idea to form a cooperative for processing breadfruit was born. They envisioned a network of breadfruit farmers dedicated to reviving ulu consumption as a way to improve food security in Hawaii.
The members (now nearly 100) want to see breadfruit promoted as a local, tasty and nutritious starch with numerous culinary uses. The Coop is actively proceeding to do just that.
Members deliver crops from their cooperating farms to the Kona headquarters just off Kuakini Highway No. 11 in Honalo as well as to the Kamehameha Schools Post Harvest Facility in Hilo. The crops then become an array of delicious products that serve local schools, stores and restaurants as well as community home consumers. Available products and a product locator are available on their website, eatbreadfruit.com.
The coop offers native ulu trees for sale as well as the smaller Samoan ma‘afala variety. Once your breadfruit tree starts producing in three or four years, you too can become a coop member. Be ready. A fully mature tree can produce more than 200 pounds of fruit a year. At least now, you know where to take your excess.
Ulu has a long history in Kona. Prior to contact by westerners, native Hawaiians maintained an ulu forest about one half mile wide stretching from north to south more than 20 miles around 1,000 feet elevation. This area was known as the kalu‘ulu and was a significant source of food for the local residents. Like many areas of Kona, ulu grew well there and provided a dependable source of food. Ulu is one of the few starchy vegetables that grows on perennial trees. Once the trees mature they can produce hundreds of pounds of food with relatively little care, making ulu a very sustainable crop.
Shapiro’s experience working with Melanie Bondera at The Kohala Center in Waimea prepared her well for seeking funding and support for cooperatives. She has actively pursued grants to start and continue to support the Coop. Startup funding came from ‘Ulupono, USDA and the state Department of Agriculture. She currently has several grants in the pipeline that will enable them to expand their operation and services.
When I asked Dana about the future for the coop, she responded, “I’m longing for the day we can get back out in the community and do more breadfruit promotion in person.”
Currently, they are using social media, digital outlets and their website to spread the word about their existence and their products. They also continue to increase their visibility through community partnerships and relationships. Plans are afoot to expand their offerings and spread the ‘ulu word in the community as the company grows and pandemic shutdowns decrease.
Dana’s view for the future includes expanding interest in ulu and growing the number of ulu trees beyond the current five thousand that are in the ground. Though the coop took in 100,000 pounds of ulu this year, Dana’s goal for them is to be processing at least a million pounds annually by 2026.
Go to the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative website at www.eatbreadfruit.com to discover what they have to offer. More than food is available through the coop. In addition to products, a product locator and recipes, they offer lots of information on the coop as well as advice on ulu growing and access to educational videos. Try a few ulu recipes and you’ll surely want to see more breadfruit on your plate.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.