HANALEI, Kauai — The poi pounding begins early on Thursday mornings at Waipa Foundation on the Garden Island’s North Shore.
The kamaaina here know — Thursdays are Poi Day at the local nonprofit, which stewards the ahupuaa, or land division, near the river while teaching Hawaiian values and culture.
It produces about 800 pounds per week of poi, a traditional Hawaiian dish made by pounding cooked taro roots into a purple paste that’s then allowed to ferment. Some of the taro comes from its own farm and the rest from neighboring ones.
Making poi, especially that much, is an extremely labor-intensive process involving dozens of volunteers and staff. It’s also a cultural and community-based practice for Native Hawaiians. Taro, or kalo as it’s called in Hawaiian, is a sacred crop, tied to Hawaiian beliefs about creation.
Farming for taro has been declining year after year despite what farmers say is a growing demand, with fewer people choosing to grow the crop that was long a daily staple for Native Hawaiians.
However, it’s hard to know how much because data under-represents the production and sales of the starchy root vegetable, partially because farmers often choose to trade it locally to friends and family instead of marketing it to large retail chains.
That translates to less federal and state support, as government programs use data, including the market and production value of crops, to determine funding or program allocation.
“The more accurate that data can be might help to get those funds distributed to Hawaii,” Shawn Clark, the Hawaii State Statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistical Service, said in an interview.
Growing, cultivating and cooking kalo is hard work that’s not always profitable.
“They have been doing three different stages of cleaning, like getting off all the skin, all the remnants of skin, all the rocks and spots, cutting it up into small pieces to go in that,” Stacy Sproat-Beck, Waipa’s executive director, said during a recent tour of Waipa’s ahupua‘a.
Many farmers and processors continue to do the work largely as a labor of love. It’s important to maintain the tradition and make kalo available at an affordable price, Sproat-Beck said. “Our goal through this process is really food justice.”
Hanalei is the taro capital of Hawaii, home to farms that produce more than two-thirds of all the taro in the state. But taro farming used to be more widespread across the islands.
Production has declined in the past few decades, save for a few spikes here and there, because of climate events, aging farmers, and barriers to accessing land, water and infrastructure, farmers say.
Government and industry experts also estimate that kalo production in Hawaii is undervalued because of how much tends to be traded, sold and given out non-commercially, as in among friends and family and within the community, as opposed to retail chains, mills or grocers.
“When you’re looking only at commercial production, you’re not measuring the whole thing,” said Matthew Loke, an administrator with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. “We need to do better.”
Bobby Watari, a Hanalei taro farmer, has filled out numerous USDA surveys. He says while most of his crops are sold to mills, it’s true that some of the hand-to-hand sales don’t show up in the data.
“There’s a lot of people trading and giving away or selling on the side,” he said. “Say somebody wants to buy two bags or five bags for a party or something, you know. There’s a lot of stuff like that.”
But he’s skeptical that filling those gaps can substantially help taro farmers.
“Why do we need more data when the farmers have been asking the state for help for years?” Watari said.
They could use some help right now. Heavy rains flooded parts of Watari’s farm last month, unraveling the work he and his family have done to rebuild since the catastrophic 2018 flood left the area in ruins.
The inundation also affected his stepson Kaisen Carrillo, who uses the crop for his company, Hanalei Kalo Co., and several other farms nearby.
“I’m not even producing anything right now,” Watari said during a tour of his farm.
Another major challenge to taro farming is land access, Watari says.
Much of Hawaii’s agricultural land is owned by large landowners and not all of them are utilizing the land for farming. Despite 47% of all of Hawaii’s land being dedicated to agricultural use, a comprehensive statewide study of satellite imagery and field interviews showed just 8% is being used for growing crops.
Watari’s family leases land from the federal government. An adjacent parcel, which is only partly used for farming, is owned by a Princeville development company.
At its peak, kalo farming took up an estimated 20,000 acres in Hawaii, according to a study from University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The 2018 USDA figure puts the acreage at 310.
Reasons for the historical decline included converting to other crops, including rice and sugar, diseases affecting both humans and crops, introduction of alternate foods, and commercial agriculture replacing subsistence kalo production, the study says.
Much of the land that was traditionally used for Native Hawaiian agricultural systems can still be used to grow kalo, said Natalie Kurashima, a sustainability scholar and integrated resources manager at Kamehameha Schools. She and her colleagues studied the potential of Indigenous food production systems — dryland, lo‘i or agroforestry.
This story is a crosspost with The Hawaii Variable, Civil Beat’s data column.
Questions or comments about data or data issues in Hawaii? Fill out this form.
Kalo can be grown in all three categories, but it’s generally grown in flooded valley systems, or lo‘i. Statewide, the study estimates that some 24% of lo‘i systems have been lost because of development. That figure rises to 40% on Oahu.
But for the most part, Kurashima says even those that remain are underused “because it’s difficult, by continental standards, to farm in this area.”
Proponents of reducing Hawaii’s dependence on the mainland for food note that taro has many advantages, too.
It can be very productive with a small amount of acreage, which is one of the things that makes it an ideal crop to help achieve food sustainability, says Paul Reppun, a west Oahu farmer whose top crops include taro. “You can feed a lot of people with a little bit of land,” he said.
The pandemic has given Hawaii residents a taste of what happens when the shipping chain is disrupted, he said.
“We’re so vulnerable in this world,” he said. “There are so many things that can affect our food chain that we need to have that food security.
Taro is also considered one of the most digestible forms of starch. It’s highly nutritious — rich in calcium, potassium and iron but low in fat and protein.
“It’s like a miracle food,” Sproat-Beck says.
Much of the poi made at Waipa during Poi Day will be scooped up, bagged and loaded into a van to be sold at various locations on Kauai.
Some of the kalo is also used to make other delicacies such as cheesecake, manju and patties that are sold on Waipa premises. The most popular choice, the executive director says, is the cheesecake, which features a bright yellow lilikoi swirl.
“If it was a commodity product and subsidized, then it could be produced cheaply enough to be consumed by everybody,” Sproat-Beck said.
Reppun says a solution to the land access issue could be more state- or city-sponsored community gardens or farms to grow kalo. The state owns a lot of farmland, including the wetlands where taro can be farmed, and could facilitate their use.
“We can’t rely on the big landowners’ altruism,” Reppun said. Taro “could be what saves us. It’s hard to say. I really do think that it needs to be helped along,” he added.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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