Spurred by Mutiny Island Vodka’s breadfruit spirit that’s produced on St. Croix, commercial interest in the nutritious, bulbous food has been growing across the Virgin Islands. The buzz is partially driven by increasing demand for gluten-free foods worldwide, as well as the rising interest in specialty foodstuff items.
From value-added food products, such as pastas, chips and baking mixes, to spirits, cosmetics and bug repellent, the edible and nonedible uses of breadfruit are making their way to the global market.
But breadfruit’s nutritional and cultural importance has been recognized for millennia. “Breadfruit is considered a staple in the Caribbean, sometimes consumed more frequently in areas than even rice,” explained Chenzira Davis-Kahina, director of the Virgin Islands and Caribbean Cultural Center and member of the Global Breadfruit Heritage Council. “Native ancestral Virgin Islanders have long been aware of the benefits, longevity, and multiple uses of breadfruit.”
It’s not the first time local farmers have heard of the crop either. Increased commercial interest, however, has some following the market for breadfruit more closely. Many farmers are keen to plant more breadfruit trees on their land and potentially grow the market for what is seen as a potential commodity crop for the island of St. Croix.
Nate Olive, director of Ridge to Reef Farm on St. Croix, is leading an alliance of V.I. farmers, nonprofits, and agriculture extension professionals to distribute breadfruit trees to support economic development for farmers. Over the last year, R2R helped distribute and plant nearly 2,000 trees as part of their goal to plant 10,000 breadfruit trees over five years. The large majority of the trees went to farmers and residents.
Fruit vs. Flour
Chef Todd Manley, restaurateur and owner and founder of Mutiny Island Vodka, says that he is often approached by enthusiastic residents looking to sell breadfruit from their backyard trees.
“I’ll use [the fruit] in the restaurant, but I think what people don’t realize is that for us to make the vodka we use 5,400 pounds of breadfruit at a time,” Manley said. This much breadfruit can make a run of more than 10,000 bottles at Mutiny’s distillery, which currently employs 12 people in the former Island Dairies facility.
Manley will need a lot more breadfruit as demand for the vodka continues to grow with export to other islands and the U.S. mainland starting soon. But fresh-from-the-tree breadfruit isn’t what Manley and other breadfruit entrepreneurs are most interested in.
“Most of the demand and potential is for breadfruit flour,” said Olive, whose farm currently grows and distributes fresh breadfruit along with other fruits and vegetables. The market preference for flour is in part because, once picked, breadfruit doesn’t travel well, especially long distances.
That means a processing facility will be needed to get large quantities of local breadfruit into Manley’s vodka. And at the rate that trees are planted, Olive says there is going to be a lot of breadfruit in a few years.
“We will likely flood the local market for fresh breadfruit and there is no large-scale production of breadfruit flour in the V.I.s currently, or across the Caribbean,” Olive said, adding that plans for a processing facility on St. Croix are being discussed.
In the meantime, to make his island vodka Manley said he is patching together sources of breadfruit flour from across the globe, including American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Indonesia, Ecuador, Hawaii, and Jamaica.
Manley’s hope is that the demand for his vodka will increase demand for local breadfruit across the Virgin Islands and create economic opportunities for local farmers and entrepreneurs. It remains to be seen whether the commercialization of breadfruit on an industrial scale will prove to be the boon that farmers and entrepreneurs might hope.
Revitalization vs. Commercialization
Breadfruit revitalization efforts, largely grassroots efforts focused on the cultural and nutritional promotion of breadfruit, have been taking place in Hawaii and other Pacific Islands over the last decade.
Breadfruit enthusiasts from St. Croix and neighboring islands are eager to understand how to successfully promote breadfruit in the territories. In August, the Virgin Islands Small Business Development Center hosted a roundtable exchange between breadfruit practitioners of the Atlantic and Pacific to discuss breadfruit’s economic potential on St. Croix.
Davis-Kahina said she would like to see the nutritional and cultural importance prioritized in breadfruit efforts in the Virgin Islands.
“I would’ve loved to see equitable marketing and branding to the same extent that marketed and branded the vodka for the benefits of eating breadfruit,” she said. “We are not trying to have people grow breadfruit just so they can make just flour just so they can make vodka. That should not be the end all be all.”
There is also the question of how breadfruit will be grown.
“You want efficiency, but you don’t want monoculture because you will lose the other benefits [of the tree],” said Olive, who encourages farmers and residents to plant breadfruit within a mix of other fruit tree and plant species as he does at Reef to Ridge.
“By putting in another mono-crop we would be doing the same thing as Chiquita and Dole,” Davis-Kahina said. “We’ve seen this before in the Caribbean.”
Even if produced in an ecologically sustainable way, there is concern that limited productive farmland in the Virgin Islands, which might otherwise grow a diversity of edible crops, will be diverted to grown breadfruit for nonedible uses.
“We’re looking forward to there being a more restorative harmony in how things are produced here, and that we focus on food and feeding people,” Davis-Kahina said.