Regardless of rising demand, fewer farmers are rising Hawaii’s Miracle Meals taro

HANALEI, Kauai – Poi pounding begins early Thursday morning at the Waipa Foundation on the north shore of Garden Island.

The Kamaaina Here Know – Thursdays are Poi Day at the local nonprofit that manages the Ahupuaa, or division of land near the river, teaching Hawaiian values ​​and culture in the process.

It produces around 800 pounds a week of poi, a traditional Hawaiian dish made by whipping cooked taro roots into a purple paste that is then allowed to ferment. Some of the taro comes from its own farm and the rest from neighboring farms.

Making poi, especially so much, is an extremely labor-intensive process that involves dozens of volunteers and staff. It’s also a cultural and community-based practice for native Hawaiians. Taro, or Kalo as it is called in Hawaiian, is a sacred harvest associated with the Hawaiian belief in creation.

Agriculture for taro has declined year after year, although the demand from farmers is growing. Fewer people choose to grow the crop, which has long been a staple food for local Hawaiians.

It’s hard to know how much, however, as the data underrepresents the production and sales of the starchy root vegetable, in part because farmers often sell it to friends and family locally rather than market it to large retail chains.

This results in 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 the data, the better these funds can be distributed to Hawaii,” said Shawn Clark, Hawaii state statistician with the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistical Service, in an interview.

The Waipa Foundation grows taro on its premises, but also buys from other farms to make poi. Yoohyun Jung / Civil Beat

Growing, cultivating, and cooking kalo is hard work that is not always profitable.

“You performed three different cleaning phases, e. For example, the entire skin, all skin residues, all stones and spots are removed and cut into small pieces, ”said Stacy Sproat-Beck, Managing Director of Waipa, said during a recent tour of Waipa’s Ahupua’a.

Many farmers and processors continue to do their work largely as love work. It’s important to keep the tradition going and make Kalo available at an affordable price, Sproat-Beck said. “Our goal through this process is truly food justice.”

Hanalei is the taro capital of Hawaii, home to farms that produce more than two-thirds of the total taro in the state. However, taro farming used to be more widespread in the islands.

Production has declined over the past few decades, save for some spikes here and there due to 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 as unlike retail chains, mills, or grocers, it tends to be traded, sold, and not spent commercially, such as with friends and family and within the community.

“If you’re just looking at commercial production, you’re not measuring the whole,” said Matthew Loke, administrator with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. “We have to do better.”

Hanalei is the taro capital of Hawaii, as more than two-thirds of taro agriculture is carried out there. Yoohyun Jung / Civil Beat

Bobby Watari, a Hanalei taro farmer, has completed numerous USDA surveys. He says while most of his crops are sold to mills, it is true that some of the hand-to-hand sales do not show up in the data.

“There are a lot of people who trade on the side and give away or sell,” he said. “Suppose someone wants to buy two or five bags for a party or something, you know. There are so many things. “

But he’s skeptical that filling these gaps can help taro farmers significantly.

“Why do we need more data when farmers have been asking the state for help for years?” Said Watari.

You could use some help now. Heavy rains flooded parts of Watari’s farm last month, unraveling the work he and his family have been doing to rebuild it since the disastrous flooding of 2018 left the area in ruins.

According to Bobby Watari, access to land is one of the biggest barriers facing new farmers. Yoohyun Jung / Civil Beat

The flood also affected his stepson Kaisen Carrillo, who uses the harvest for his Hanalei Kalo Co. company and several other farms nearby.

“I’m not even producing anything right now,” Watari said during a tour of his farm.

Another major challenge for taro farming is access to land, according to Watari.

Much of Hawaii’s farmland is owned by large landowners, and not all of the land is used for agriculture. Although 47% of all of Hawaii’s land is used for agriculture, a comprehensive statewide study using satellite imagery and field interviews found that only 8% is used for growing crops.

Watari’s family leases land from the federal government. An adjacent property that is only partially used for agriculture belongs to a development company in Princeville.

According to a study by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, kalo farming in Hawaii took up an estimated 20,000 acres at its peak. The USDA figure for 2018 puts the acreage at 310.

Reasons for the historic decline were the shift to other crops including rice and sugar, diseases that affect both humans and plants, the introduction of alternative foods, and commercial agriculture that is replacing subsistence kalo production, the study says .

Much of the land that has traditionally been used for indigenous Hawaiian farming systems can still be used to grow kalo, said Natalie Kurashima, sustainability researcher and integrated resources manager at Kamehameha Schools. She and her colleagues examined the potential of indigenous food production systems – arid areas, lo’i or agroforestry.

Kalo can be grown in all three categories, but it is generally grown in flooded valley systems, or lo’i. Nationwide, the study estimates that around 24% of Lo’i systems have been lost due to development. That number rises to 40% on Oahu.

But for the most part, Kurashima says that even those that are left are underutilized “because the area is difficult to farm by continental standards”.

Kalo’s future

Proponents of reducing Hawaii’s mainland dependence on food note that taro has many benefits too.

It can be very productive with a small acreage, which is one of the things that make it an ideal crop for achieving food sustainability, says Paul Reppun, a western 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 Hawaiians a taste of what will happen if the shipping chain is broken, he said.

Community service coordinator Ka’ui Fu shovels poi into 1-pound bags. Yoohyun Jung / Civil Beat

“We are so vulnerable in this world,” he said. “There are so many things that can affect our food chain that we need this food security.

Taro is also considered to be one of the most digestible forms of starch. It’s very nutritious – high in calcium, potassium, and iron, but low in fat and protein.

“It’s like eating a miracle,” says Sproat-Beck.

Much of the poi made in Waipa during Poi Day is scooped, packaged, and loaded into a van for sale in various locations around Kauai.

Some of the kalos is also used to make other delicacies such as cheesecake, manju, and patties, which are sold on the Waipa premises. The most popular choice, says the manager, is the cheesecake, which features a bright yellow lilikoi swirl.

“If it were a raw material product and subsidized, it could be produced cheaply enough to be consumed by everyone,” said Sproat-Beck.

The demand for taro is there, but farmers say the supply cannot keep up. Yoohyun Jung / Civil Beat

Reppun says a solution to the land access problem could be more state or municipal sponsored community gardens or farms to grow kalo. The state owns a lot of arable land, including the wetlands where taro can be farmed, and could facilitate their use.

“We cannot rely on the altruism of the big landowners,” said Reppun. Taro “could save us. It’s difficult to say. I really think it needs to be helped, ”he added.

Hawaii Grown is funded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.


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