Breadfruit expert honored

LIHUE — Diane Ragone, director of the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, added another award to an already extensive list.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ragone on how the latest honor, from her alma mater, felt.

On Wednesday, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources named Ragone the 2015 Outstanding Alumna for her work to understand, conserve and promote breadfruit as a valuable tropical crop.

Ragone said that while she is honored and humbled to be chosen, she hopes it brings attention to CTAHR, which she described as an incredible institution and one of the greatest things going for UH.

“That’s what I’d really like to see happen,” she said.

Ragone is an authority on the conservation and use of breadfruit, or ulu, and has been conducting studies on the crop for 30 years. Her fieldwork helped establish the world’s largest and most extensive collection of ulu — 120 varieties from 34 islands in the Pacific — at NTBG’s Kahanu Garden on Maui.

In addition to Ragone’s award, Big Island farmer Richard Ha received the Ka Lei Hano Heritage Award for his advocacy on behalf of local agriculture, business development and the college.

Dr. Maria Gallo, CTAHR dean and director for research and cooperative extension, said Ragone and Ha contribute greatly toward achieving food security and sustainable agriculture production in Hawaii.”

“Both are visionary leaders who find solutions that tap the wisdom of the past in meeting the needs of the future,” Gallo said in a statement.

The two will be presented with their awards at CTAHR’s 27th Annual Awards Banquet May 8 in Honolulu.

Ragone, with a Ph.D in horticulture has been director of NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute since it was founded in 2003. Since spearheading the effort to revolutionize propagation techniques, Ragone has overseen distribution of thousands of nutritious, superior varieties of breadfruit trees throughout the Pacific.

Among the ongoing projects at the institute is the “Plant a Tree of Life — Grow Ulu” project, which began in 2012 with the goal of distributing breadfruit trees. During its first two years, the program handed out 8,300. Last year it went international, divvying out more than 2,200 trees in places like Zambia, American Samoa, Liberia and Haiti.

On Saturday, the Breadfruit Institute will have its first breadfruit tree giveaway of 2015 during the YWCA’s One Billion Rising event, part of a global campaign to bring an end to violence against women and girls. The event begins at 11 a.m. at Kapaa Beach Park. 

So does Ragone, who arguably knows as much or more about ulu than anyone on Earth, still eat the fruit after all these years of being around it?

“I do,” she said. “I actually have some fruits that we picked in the garden yesterday.”

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