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Can Taro Farming Heal Hawaii?

For more than 1,000 years, taro, or “kalo” as Native Hawaiians call it, was a staple crop in Hawai’i.

Since Western contact in 1778, however, taro production has steadily declined in the state. Not only was the population of native Hawaiians decimated by foreign disease, but many of those who survived also lost their land to the sugar plantation owners in the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, the influx of people from Asia and the United States brought other staple foods such as wheat and rice.

Taro production, at its peak, is estimated to have covered 35,000 acres on the Hawaiian Islands. Current estimates indicate the number has fallen to less than 350 acres statewide—a tiny amount compared to the estimated 16,000 acres of each of Hawaii’s top two crops, sugarcane and macadamias. But if the recent interest in taro farming is any indication, those numbers may soon rise again. Hawaiʻi consumes approximately 6.5 million pounds of taro annually. Local farms supply close to 75 percent, but to meet the demand, the state imports about 2 million pounds of the tubers every year, mostly from Fiji.

Farmers like Hōkūao Pellegrino hope to fill that gap. He has picked up where his ancestors left off and is using his family’s Maui land to grow 45 varieties of organic taro.

Growing up, Pellegrino spent much of his free time playing by a stream famous for taro production, “but not knowing anything about the value of water, not knowing anything about all the plants around me,” he says. As a young man, he discovered that his ancestors had cultivated loʻi kalo (wetland taro ponds) for centuries. The last farmers stopped in the late 1940s, after a large sugar company in the area diverted the stream to irrigate sugar cane fields.

While pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, Pellegrino, his father, and his mentor, Kanaʻe Keawe, a professor of ethnobotany and master craftsman, began to clear and restore his family’s taro pond.

Community members restoring Pellegrino’s first taro pond in 2004.

In 2004, after being chosen by ‘Onipaʻa Nā Hui Kalo, a state-wide organization of kalo farmers, for their annual restoration project, Nohoʻana Farm was re-born. Pellegrino recalls, “We had 125 people come and help open our very first loʻi. Kalo farmers from the Big Island to Kauaʻi and everywhere in between; family members, cousins, neighbors—it was huge.”

A Native Superfood

Taro is known to be a highly nutritious; the tuber is a good source of potassium, carbohydrate, and fiber, and also contains calcium and iron. Its granules, when broken down, are said to be one-tenth the size of a potato granule, making it especially easy to digest. The leaves, when cooked, are also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Studies also show evidence that poi, a traditional fermented food made with taro, is a probiotic that contains significantly more gut-friendly bacteria than yogurt.

All these beneficial properties make taro an important candidate for fixing the Hawaiian diet. Although it has...

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