Santa Monica Farmers Market Report: The West Coast Papaya King

A Hawaiian-born former surfboard shaper is growing the first commercial crop of papayas in California, and his Carpinteria farm will soon offer pineapples and bananas too

No one was expecting papayas. Or cherries. Or peaches. Or nectarines. But when the bullhorn belted out at yesterday’s Santa Monica Farmers Market, all of the above were present and accounted for.

Cherries are an annual showstopper, and by 9 a.m. a queue had formed as customers patiently waited for their $8 bag of Brooks. Chefs politely tried white peaches and yellow nectarines—the former were rock hard and tasted of green fruit, the latter would be permissible at Whole Foods—but most were left scratching their heads. Sure, the cherries were early, but why were there peaches and nectarines at the market in April?

Just when things couldn’t get any weirder, people began stumbling upon the $6-a-pound papayas. Underneath an orange-sherbet-colored umbrella, growers Damien Raquinio and Adam Rhodes of Golden State Papaya answered questions from confused customers.

You have papayas? Yes.

Where are they grown? Carpinteria.

Wow, papayas? Yup.

Shiho Yoshikawa literally bounced into the stand, her mouth agape. “Oh my God! Where do these come from?” she asked. The ice cream chef behind Sweet Rose Creamery barely waited for the answer. “Do you have seconds [cosmetically imperfect fruit]? I’ll buy them all,” she said.

It appears that Raquinio and Rhodes are the first commercial papaya growers in California. The trees grow like weeds on the Big Island where Raquinio grew up. “In Hawaii, it’s a given,” he says. “It’s not even exotic. It’s a fruit that falls off the tree and rots, and the birds eat it.” But in sub-tropical Santa Barbara County, cultivating papayas has been a challenge.

The idea to grow them on the mainland came three years ago when Raquinio found Hawaiian papayas for sale at a Whole Foods for $8 a pound. Crunching the numbers, he realized there was a handsome salary hidden in that orange flesh. He met Rhodes while working as a surfboard designer. Raquinio pitched Rhodes a business plan, and weeks later they began tinkering in a greenhouse.

“Papayas are a finicky nightmare,” Raquinio tells me. “We had so many failures.” It took two years for the trees to bear consistent fruit, and only in the last 10 months has the product been stable and ready for market.

While he won’t reveal any secrets, Raquinio will divulge that the plants are grown in a greenhouse on 5/8 of an acre in Carpinteria. They are not yet certified organic, but they refuse to use pesticides and rely on a special soil blend and good nutrition to nurture the trees.

Right now, they have two varieties of papayas: sunrise and sunset, both old-fashioned Hawaiian varieties. And in the next year, we can expect two varieties of pineapples and six varieties of bananas to show up at Golden State Papaya’s farmstand.

As for the best way to eat papaya? Raquinio starts by cutting the fruit in half and carefully scooping out the seeds. Next, he lobs the top off a passion fruit, swirls the flesh and juices with a spoon and slowly drizzles the mixture over the papaya. “It’s a Hawaiian thing,” he says. “Not many people know about it.”

You can find Golden State Papaya at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market as well as the Tuesday and Saturday Santa Barbara markets.