Kentucky Proud

Kentucky Ag News

Ilze Sillers

Ilze Sillers with a pawpaw she has cracked open on her Woodford County farm. (Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo)

 

Pawpaw producer perpetuates traditional Kentucky treat

 

Nutritious native fruit is showing up in craft beer, ice cream, and other products

 

By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Agricultural News

 

“Pickin’ up pawpaws/put ’em in your pockets/way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”


“The Pawpaw Patch”
, traditional folk song

 

VERSAILLES, Ky. — Ilze Sillers has a pawpaw patch of more than 100 mature trees that are 20-30 years old on Daneli Farm in eastern Woodford County near the Fayette County line.

Pawpaws from Sillers and other Kentucky growers are currently being processed by Kentucky State University’s Fruit and Vegetable Mobile Processing Unit. The fruit’s bright yellow flesh will be used by Rooster Brewing in Paris, and Rock House Brewing, West Sixth Brewing, and Ethereal Brewing, all of Lexington, to produce pawpaw beers for Kentucky Proud Beer Week, Oct. 12-14.


“They’re labor intensive,” Sillers said of growing pawpaws. “The biggest problem I have is getting the help to do all this [harvesting].”


Sillers decided to become a pawpaw grower more than 20 years ago after attending one of Kentucky State University’s (KSU’s) Third Thursday presentations on pawpaws by Dr. Kirk Pomper, who leads the world’s only full-time pawpaw research program at KSU in Frankfort.


“I was trying to figure out what to do with the farm,” said Sillers. “I thought about grapes. When I heard Dr. Pomper speak about pawpaws, I thought, ‘This will be perfect.’ I got a slew of different varieties [of trees from KSU].”


Called the American Custard Apple and nicknamed “Poor Man’s Banana,” the pawpaw (Asimina trilob) is neither apple nor banana. It’s the largest edible fruit native to America, and it grows throughout Appalachia and east of the Mississippi River from Michigan to northern Florida.


Like bananas, the pawpaw’s skin is not edible, and its yellow flesh is mushy. It has a mild citrus flavor described as a combination of mango and banana with a hint of melon.


Pawpaws are nutritious – high in antioxidants, abundant in Vitamin C, and rich in minerals such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.


In addition to eating them raw right off the tree, pawpaws can be made into ice cream, baked, or used as a pie filling. Some Appalachian cooks make a custard out of “poppaws.”


“You can use them like you would use bananas,” Sillers said.


Her pawpaws are also transformed into a white wine by Wildside Winery near Versailles.

 

Sillers uses her pawpaws to make salsa. Her biggest customer is Good Foods Co-op in Lexington.


“People start asking for them in August,” she said, pointing out that pawpaws are in season from August until the first frost, with peak harvest in mid-September when they can fall off the tree naturally.


In the past, Sillers sold pawpaws to restaurants and at the Woodford County Farmers’ Market, where many older customers would reminisce with her about their memories of eating pawpaws.


Pawpaw trees are not pollinated by honeybees but by flies.


“I have plenty of flies, especially with horses around,” Sillers said, who owns horses and whose farm borders a large Thoroughbred racing operation, WinStar Farm.


Sillers, a psychologist who works as a consultant with Social Security disability for the state, moved to the farm 25 years ago from Lexington.


“It’s a wonderful location,” she said.


Sillers was born during World War II in Riga, Latvia, when it was occupied by Nazi Germany. Her family fled the country before the Soviet Union invaded in 1944. The family lived in Germany, where her father was a doctor for the Red Cross in the war-torn country, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1949.


“When I was growing up, we lived on a 6-acre farm, and I loved it,” she said. “I always wanted [to own] a farm. I wanted to go back to my roots.”