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The Promise of Pawpaw

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PHILADELPHIA — The new pawpaw patch at the Woodlands, a sprawling historic property along the Schuylkill, still isn’t much to look at. But just give those trees time, said Alkebu-Lan Marcus, the farmer who tends to them.

He knows his pawpaws will soon be excellent providers.

The pawpaw is an ancient, native North American fruit tree whose thin, droopy branches and leaves like teardrops are found in forests across most of the eastern half of the United States.

For years fans have been drawn to the fragile, fragrant fruit, still sold mostly at farmers’ markets or on Facebook pages. But as issues like climate change, economic inequity and access to food become increasingly critical — spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic — it’s the tree itself that is drawing more attention.

It naturally repels pests, disease and whitetail deer, thrives in shade and produces large, nutritious fruit that are creamy when ripe and taste like a blend of banana, pineapple and mango.

Mr. Marcus, 27, was drawn to farming after being arrested in 2015 at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baltimore. He considers growing pawpaws — which once fed his enslaved ancestors — as part of that movement, which promotes self-sufficiency.

“The pawpaw is native here,” said Mr. Marcus, who works on behalf of the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which started a one-acre educational farm on the property this spring. “It makes you feel more secure about our ability to feed ourselves.”

Credit… John Taggart for The New York Times
Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

Pawpaws are the northernmost member of the mostly tropical custard apple family, kin to soursops, cherimoyas, sugar apples and ylang-ylangs. Nutritionally these sweet, rich fruits are a lot like bananas — high in vitamins, minerals and energy-supplying calories. (They are not related to the papaya, even though papaya is sometimes called pawpaw.)

“Everybody in the botanical world, everybody in the environmental world — they’re all familiar with the pawpaw,” said Matthew Dain, 28, of the New York Restoration Project, which helps manage green spaces and gardens in New York City.

The group has recently increased its focus on pawpaws, distributing trees and spring seed-starting kits. Pawpaw trees stay small enough to fit a couple into small city plots — at least two varieties are needed for cross-pollination — and can withstand the already prevalent effects of climate change, like warmer temperatures or more pests and diseases.

The pawpaw is also pollinated by flies and other insects rather than by honeybees, said Mr. Dain, and it flowers over several weeks instead of all at once, which ensures that fruit isn’t lost to the Northeast’s spring frosts.

Devon Mihesuah, 63, an author and a professor of native history and culture at the University of Kansas, who also created the school’s American Indian Health and Diet Project, grew up picking pawpaws with her grandmother.

A citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Dr. Mihesuah now forages for them near her home in Baldwin City, Kan. (Sometimes she makes ice cream, the next best way to eat a pawpaw after cutting it open and putting its custardy flesh directly into your mouth, she said.)

ImageDr. Mihesua recently started her own pawpaw trees from seed.
Credit…Barrett Emke for The New York Times
Credit…Barrett Emke for The New York Times
Credit…Barrett Emke for The New York Times

Dr. Mihesuah focuses on Indigenous food sovereignty for Native peoples of the United States. It’s a concept that emphasizes not just access to food and embracing traditions, but also more control over the entire food system, from what is grown to who sells it.

Though there are trademarked plants from Kentucky State University’s pawpaw program and well-known growers like Neal Peterson, pawpaws have yet to become a commodity, Dr. Mihesuah said. They’re still found in the wild in hundreds of varieties, and you can grow numerous good-tasting pawpaws from their giant black seeds, which are nearly the size of quarters.

Last spring, Dr. Mihesuah started her own plants, following the standard advice to keep seeds cold and moist for a few months before they’re sown. She now has 17 pawpaw trees, which still need around five more years to produce fruit.

“If I ever move,” Dr. Mihesuah said, “they’re coming with me.”

There are also young pawpaws at the Catawba Indian Nation in South Carolina, where DeLesslin George-Warren is following Dr. Mihesuah’s lead.

Two years ago, Mr. George-Warren, 29, won a series of grants to start his nation’s first food sovereignty program, which included planting 100 young pawpaw trees.

Like most of his fellow Catawbas, he had never seen a pawpaw before. Now it is one of his favorite plants. He hopes the nation will one day breed its own cultivars as a way to earn income. Until then, he is waiting to see what growing pawpaws will teach them.

“A big part of this is recovering the knowledge that was taken from us through colonization,” Mr. George-Warren said. “We can mourn what was lost, but we still need to work on this, and the earth is our first teacher.”

Taking cues from nature is also part of the plan for Ronald Jones, whose densely planted backyard was just named the best urban garden in St. Louis at the Missouri State Fair.

Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

Mr. Jones, 47, won his first pawpaw in another gardening contest, and has since found them to be perfect for his gardening techniques, one of which is planting a “food forest.” His yard — he calls it Blackberry Landscaping — trades tidy rows for a mix of fruit trees and shrubs growing right next to vegetable crops, herbs and vines, all left to die back and enrich the soil.

Mr. Jones, who lives in the historic Black neighborhood called Jeff-Vander-Lou, opens his yard to the public and gives fruit away via Facebook. In the future he wants to find an empty city block — there are many in his community thanks in part to 20th-century practices like redlining — and turn it into a true educational center like the one in Philadelphia.

You could argue that Charles West’s yard is also a food forest, even though he is the professional grower behind West Farm Nursery in Branchburg, N.J., just 50 miles west of Manhattan.

Mr. West, 81, a botanist who grew up eating pawpaws in Ohio, tends to more than 100 trees, the largest of which form a grove that meanders around other plants like okra, squash, berries and summer herbs.

Mr. West, who started his farm as a retirement project 15 years ago, now sells more than 40 varieties of the fruit from a refrigerator in his garage from August to October. But trees are his biggest seller: His orders jumped to 250, from 50, over the last four years.

Mr. West does tinker with other kinds of fruit trees, including a peach he regards with derision. It has never given me a single fruit,” he said. “My conclusion is we should leave the European trees in Europe.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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