Mahi`ai / Farming


Mahi`ai / Farming

Clarence Eli Kaona

All of space was dark when the cosmos first rubbed against Earth and warmed the planet. When the ocean floor became hot enough to ignite life, silent waters carried the procreative force of Kumulipo, the first male, and Pō‘ele, the first female. Coral was born, then the grub that digs through land, then starfish, sea urchins, limpets, and their children. These were followed by the creation of fish and forests, insects, birds, and pigs. Much later, the great-grandparents of the human race came forth: Sky-Father Wākea and Earth-Mother Papa.

Wākea and Papa created a daughter, Ho‘ohōkūkalani, whose beauty aroused her father’s passion. One night, father and daughter became one. Ho‘ohōkūkalani delivered a stillborn baby, and from the infant’s grave a kalo (taro) plant sprouted. Wākea called the plant Hāloa-naka, for its long, quivering leaves. Later, father and daughter produced a boy, naming him Hāloa in honor of the starch, the kalo, that nourished him as he grew into a man.

In the following centuries, Hawaiians cultivated kalo in gardens large and small; the kalo, in turn, sustained their families. They knew kalo as their ancestor Hāloa, his heart-shaped leaves and genealogy entwined with their cosmos, their land, their gods, their chiefs, and themselves.

Today, as the evening sky deepens into twilight across the Hawaiian Islands, thousands of visitors sit down to sample a “Hawaiian” lū‘au. They heap pork, chicken, and pineapple onto their plates, but they cringe at the thimble-sized cups of steamed, mashed kalo, called poi, likening it to wallpaper paste. Entertainers and waiters joke about the taste of poi, and diners by the hundreds toss it into the trash, missing out on the fundamental Hawaiian pleasure of eating poi with native foods such as smoked fish and steamed pig.

The purple-gray starch was once the staple food of Hawai‘i, but these days only a few plastic bags of poi can be found in grocery stores here and there. The scanty supply dwindles even more in late spring and summer, just when traditional reunion, graduation, and wedding celebrations place it in high demand. And poi is expensive for most Hawaiians--sixteen ounces of poi costs the same as eighty ounces of imported potatoes.

Sixty percent of all island poi kalo is grown in the irrigated terraces, or lo‘i, of Hanalei, Kaua‘i. Six days a week, kalo farmer Clarence Eli Kaona wades through his muddy lo‘i, caring for the kalo by hand, knee-deep in waters flowing down from the green mountain behind him. The scene defines a timeless tranquility, withstanding even the helicopters buzzing overhead on their way to show tourists the Nāpali coast.
Watching Clarence at work, it is difficult to imagine a time when he, kalo, and Hanalei were ever separated. But the peacefulness of Hanalei, like that of all Hawai‘i, has repeatedly been disrupted. Events long past dislodged most native Hawaiians from their kalo patches in Hanalei, and only a few ever returned. Clarence Eli Kaona is one of them.
Clarence was seven years old when his family settled in Hanalei, driven from their house at nearby ‘Anini by devastating tidal waves in 1946. The tsunami inundated the Kaona property, and as the wave receded, it carried away the family’s chickens, pigs, and ducks. The family bolted to safety just ahead of a second wave, which destroyed their house and quarter-acre kalo garden. The family gave up their lease on the narrow coastal strip in ‘Anini and moved to Hanalei, where Clarence’s father, David, could afford to buy a plot of land. Red Cross relief funds provided lumber for him to build a house.
Before he moved, Clarence’s grandfather had raised kalo in the back of Hanalei Valley. Clarence’s father began growing kalo there during his free time from work at the county fire station. Later, David moved to patches closer to town, behind the Wai‘oli Hui‘ia Church and Mission House. He did not use machines, pesticides, or fertilizer on his kalo crop, and it grew to be the largest in Wai‘oli. Honolulu Poi Company bought much of the harvest, and the proceeds helped feed his family and send most of the children to college. David’s best kalo went into burlap sacks for shipment to Honolulu; he kept the rest for family and friends.
Before he moved to Hanalei, David Kaona made poi the traditional way--he boiled the kalo tubers and mashed them by hand into thick globs of poi, using a stone poi pounder and mango-wood plank. But after the tidal wave carried away the family’s pounding board, David and his father mechanized the grinding process with a modified Model A engine and transmission. After school and on Saturdays, while other kids sneaked smokes or played ball, David’s children helped plant and harvest kalo.
Clarence, a burly teenager, graduated from Kapa‘a High School in 1956, but he wasn’t ready to settle down in Hanalei. “I figured I might as well venture out a little bit. . . . I wanted to get away for a while.” He did a two-year stint in the Navy, then attended Church College (now Brigham Young University–Hawai‘i) on O‘ahu for two years. After a three-year Mormon mission to Taiwan, he once again returned to Hawai‘i, and married a local girl in 1963. They moved to San Francisco, and in the space of a few years Clarence fathered two children, became a $40,000-a-year warehouse foreman, and bought a house. Eventually, his marriage ended and he remarried.
At home in Hanalei, Clarence’s father retired from the Fire Department in 1959 and thereafter spent his days in the kalo patches. He grew old tending the kalo year after year. A son-in-law helped him, but David’s own children had other interests. Whenever Clarence went home for vacations, he worked side by side in the muddy kalo patches with his father. “I liked to work, and helping him was something that I wanted to do.” After a day’s work, father and son would rest beside the lo‘i, watching the big kalo leaves nod and quiver in the breeze. Sometimes, after a long silence, David would ask his son, “Can you hear the taro growing?” Even though he couldn’t, Clarence promised his father that he would care for the kalo after David passed away.

David Kaona died in 1985, and Clarence knew it was time to leave the mainland and return home. “If I had not made that promise, I don’t think I would have come back real soon. But when you love your dad, you do anything.” His father’s death coincided with the collapse of Clarence’s second marriage. He sold his house, took early retirement, and moved back to Hanalei with one teenage son and his new wife, Dawn.
Clarence kept his promise to his father and began reviving the family kalo patches. He and Dawn planned to live off the income from kalo, and his weekends would be free for him to take his 30/30 carbine into the mountain forest to hunt wild pigs. Clarence set to work clearing weeds that had sprung up throughout the family’s eleven kalo patches. Altogether, the patches covered about five acres of land, either leased or owned with other families. Clarence’s brother-in-law didn’t have time for kalo any more; he worked as a fire fighter and grew flowers for his wife’s floral shop. When Dawn gave birth to twins, Clarence began driving school buses to bring in some extra money, which still left the middle of the day free for farming.
At 6 a.m., hours before the tourist rental cars started to clog the main road in Hanalei, Clarence sat behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Blue Bird school bus, negotiating the narrow, dark road that strings together the villages along the north shore of Kaua‘i--Hanalei, Wainiha, and Hā‘ena. The noisy energy of the children ricocheted inside the bus as it rolled along the winding back roads.
“Your mom’s a hippie,” one child yelled.
“No she’s not!” another shouted back.
Hā‘ena, a village dating from the remote past, sits at the end of the coastal highway beneath the plunging Nāpali cliffs; it became a magnet for hippies in the late 1960s. They built tree houses and communes and became squatters on the public beaches until the state forced most of them out in the mid-1970s. Some of them stayed on, paid rent, and started families. Their businesses gave them real property and a claim to Hanalei’s future. As more outsiders moved in, Hanalei and the rest of the north shore evolved from a predominantly agricultural community to one that mixed locals with retirees, surfers, urban escapees, and tourism-oriented entrepreneurs.
Like the traders, whalers, and missionaries who had come to Hawai‘i generations earlier, these newcomers, too, chipped away at established Hawaiian customs. Their notion of private property, for example, clashed with the communal orientation of longtime residents. During summer vacation, when Clarence worked transporting tourists, some of the new arrivals complained when he backed his bus into their driveways to turn around, and he was forced to alter his route.
“Hawaiians used to invite you into their house,” Clarence said, “but now people say ‘Don’t back in.’ Only people complaining are the haoles. I’m not saying all of them. But the idea I get is wherever they buy land, they don’t want you to cross their land. That’s where we played when I was a kid. That was our ‘äina. Makes your blood boil once in a while.”
The water irrigating Clarence’s kalo cools his temper as it flows through the patches at Wai‘oli. He steps into the water barefoot, wearing shorts, a loose T-shirt over his barrel chest, and a jacket in case the clouds drop rain--as they often do in Hanalei. His mother, Miriam, sometimes joins him during the weekly harvest. She is originally from Ni‘ihau, a small, privately owned island fifteen miles from Kaua‘i, and like the native people who live there, she speaks Hawaiian fluently. She wears gloves, a hat, cutoff shorts, a long-sleeved shirt, and Japanese sock-shoes known as tabi--unassuming work clothes that mask an endurance and strength remarkable for a woman in her seventies.
Each harvested kalo plant provides the stalk to generate a new plant, so kalo planting is preceded by kalo harvesting. Clarence’s harvesting technique differs from terrace to terrace, depending on the water level. Usually, he pulls an aluminum skiff loaded with plastic buckets and tubs behind him across the water. Using a long galvanized pipe, he prepares a six-foot-wide swath in the lo‘i to be harvested. First, he shoves the pipe through the water and into the mud to loosen the precious kalo tubers, or corms, which usually grow to softball size or bigger. Then he leans over and pulls up each plant, shakes the mud off the corm, and stacks them in the water behind him.
His mother follows with a knife, trimming off the floppy leaf tops and slicing off the stalk one-half inch below the top of the corm. She puts the stalks, called huli, in the skiff for replanting later and drops the trimmed kalo corms into the buckets. After harvesting a section, Clarence gathers the floating weeds and debris and tosses the pile into a plastic tub for stacking on the banks. Once he and his mother have filled all the buckets with kalo corms, Clarence pushes the loaded skiff back to the bank, where the kalo is packed into burlap sacks, which will each weigh eighty pounds when full. In 1994, a bag was worth $36, or 45 cents a pound.
Clarence gets his kalo to market by trucking the bulging kalo sacks in a trailer from the lo‘i to a nearby Honolulu Poi Company warehouse in Hanalei. At the warehouse, he piles the sacks onto pallets for twice-a-week deliveries to Nāwiliwili Harbor, on the southeast coast of Kaua‘i. There the island’s kalo harvest is loaded onto barges and towed to Honolulu. It will arrive in the capital a week to ten days after leaving the lo‘i.
The Honolulu Poi Company factory on O‘ahu pressure-cooks the kalo. After boiling it, workers peel the skin off by hand. Then a machine grinds the cooked purple corms and strains the mash into poi. Packed into polyethylene bags, the poi will be in Honolulu markets the next morning: $2.99 a pound.
Clarence and his mother normally harvest fifteen bags of kalo in a morning. They work in simple rhythms--a human counterpoint to the neat rows of heart-shaped leaves undulating in the breeze. Mud sucks at their legs as they move through the rippling water; the sun warms their muscles, which are kept strong with each push into the earth and every pull from it. Try to duplicate their bent aspect, the nonstop work pace--any romantic farmer-in-the-landscape notion is quickly dispelled. Clarence and Miriam crouch in a posture doing a task that the world’s best agronomists have been unable to duplicate with machines. For hours they press, yank, stack, weed, and shove, without wasted motion.
“All the time, aches and pains,” Clarence said later. “Sometimes you don’t do it right, your back hurts, your legs, your arms. . . . Taro farming is a very hard job, but I enjoy doing it. It’s a challenge every year to see what kind of crop you gonna get, and I’m my own boss. I can work when I want, and when I don’t want to work, I don’t.
“But if you don’t work, you can’t produce. Right now I got my hands pretty full with five acres. That’s about as much as I can handle. I’m doing mostly all the work. When it’s time to harvest, then I have my mom, and sometimes my brother comes over and helps me. . . . I don’t know--in twenty years you might not see any more Hawaiian taro farmers.”
The following day, Clarence plants the shorn huli stalks. To keep the newly planted huli from floating away, he first levels and compacts the mud with a weighted plastic pipe fifteen feet long and six inches wide. After dragging the pipe across the patch, he pushes each huli into the firm mud. Soon the newly planted patch will bristle with the next generation of kalo, lined up in neat rows. During the next ten to fifteen months, while the kalo is growing, Clarence will drain the patch four different times, fertilize it, and flood it again. A month before harvest he will drain it one more time to kill the roots, making the corms easier to pull. When necessary, he sprays the soft banks with Roundup herbicide to control invading grass, and he regularly mows the firmer banks that divide the lo‘i into green-edged pools.

Abundant rain and a protected bay made the windward district of Hanalei ideal for the first Hawaiian fishermen and kalo farmers. Their families probably moved to the area in the seventh century, and archaeologists believe Hanalei at one time supported tens of thousands of Hawaiians. These people worked together to engineer and maintain intricate networks of ditches for irrigating several hundred acres of lo‘i kalo. The concept behind the Hawaiian system was simple--diverted stream water flowed down from one terrace to another and on to another, before rejoining the stream below. At the time, the engineering made this the most productive agricultural method developed anywhere in the Pacific.
To prepare a new lo‘i for kalo, the farmer of old invited his neighbors to a party where together they helped compact the mud. Villagers stomped on the mud until it was firm enough for planting. Then they celebrated with a feast. The lo‘i were more than garden terraces to those Hawaiians. Their health and that of the kalo depended on how well they balanced the elements in their lives, both natural and fabricated, including those in and around the lo‘i. The farmer made sure the water flowed uninterrupted through his patches and on to his neighbor’s. He planted the banks of his terraces with more food, including banana and sugarcane. He grew ti there as well, to ensure a supply of leaves for making rain capes, thatch, sandals, wrappings for cooking, and whistles for children. Inside the flooded terraces, he raised fish, which fertilized the kalo as they grew.
The Hawaiians’ intimate relationship with the land began to deteriorate soon after the arrival of British explorer Captain James Cook, who first landed at Waimea, Kaua‘i, in January 1778. Foreigners introduced new diseases to the native population--tuberculosis, whooping cough, and smallpox--and Hawaiians died by the thousands. The haole also introduced guns, liquor, tobacco, and, equally threatening, new ideas. Hawaiians watched as the haole violated the strict prohibitions (kapu) that had controlled their society for generations; native people began to question and then to ignore the laws.
Newcomers affected the landscape, too. The Chinese prized ‘iliahi, sandalwood, and the abundant stands of it in Hawaiian forests quickly succumbed to the demands of traders who wanted the fragrant wood as barter for Asian silks and porcelains. Hawai‘i ali‘i (chiefs) capitalized on the demand, ordering commoners into the mountains to cut ‘iliahi. Kalo terraces were neglected, and villagers converted more and more kalo patches to cultivation of other crops when chiefs demanded foods they could sell to visiting ships. The ship captains did not want kalo; it spoiled too quickly.
Hanalei Valley, isolated on the remote north coast of Kaua‘i, was spared much of this turbulence. Still, roughly fifty ships a year stopped at Kaua‘i between 1830 and 1850, and inevitably, some foreigners decided to stay on the island. As early as 1831, the island’s governor approved a lease for an upland cattle ranch in Hanalei. Haole immigrants were soon using Hawaiian labor to establish sugar, silk, and coffee plantations in the nutrient-rich lowlands along the Hanalei River. The plantation owners diverted native shares of water for their own use and evicted Hawaiian kalo farmers to make room for other crops.
Over time, the plantations were responsible for consuming tremendous amounts of water. There is no documentation of the exact number of streams that dried up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or the number of Hawaiian kalo farmers who lost their water. Many Hawaiian farmers moved their families from rural areas to what they hoped would be an easier life in the towns. The elaborate system of water ditches and lo‘i, abandoned and neglected, fell into decay, and the towns became ghettos.
Further dispossession of many kalo farmers came about in 1848 when, on the advice of his missionary advisors, King Kamehameha III established the first private property ownership through a land-tenure reform act called the Māhele. The Māhele gave commoners the chance to register their farms and homelands, but few of them understood the importance of registration, nor did most of them have money to pay the surveying fee and annual tax. Commoners recorded fewer than thirty thousand acres; non-Hawaiians took more than a million.
By 1850, disease had decimated the Hawaiian population to just 84,000, and expanding urban economies were hiring away many of the rural survivors. The plantations began to look overseas for cheap labor. Landowners imported thousands of Chinese contract laborers, then tens of thousands of Japanese. The staple food of the Asians was rice, and soon the kalo terraces of Hanalei were transformed into rice paddies that produced so much grain there was a surplus to export to California. With a generosity that would came back to haunt them, in the 1930s farmers in Hanalei shared their rice seeds with California farmers. A decade later, California was growing far more rice than Hanalei, and the farmers of Kaua‘i, unable to compete, once again planted kalo.

When Clarence Kaona returned to Hawai‘i with his wife and teenage son, most of the kalo farmers in Hanalei were Japanese. Like Clarence, they wonder who will take over when they are gone. Many of them are in their seventies, and although the price of kalo has risen due to demand, most of their children do not want to get their hands muddy. Clarence’s oldest son was raised on the mainland; he tried kalo farming and stuck with it for two months. When the farmers share stories, they remember the Hawaiian farmers of old and their prowess in the kalo patch. And they, too, lament how Hanalei has changed.
“John Ho‘okano of Kalalau used to grow such a big taro, he could only carry out four at a time,” recalled one Hanalei old-timer, whose years of kalo labor have kept his body trim and strong. “Never used to fertilize. All weeds were stuck in mud. All leaves and tops used as fertilizer. . . . Doesn’t spoil as fast as fertilized taro. Today’s farmer looking for dollars, so fertilize to get big taro, but doesn’t necessarily mean good poi.
“Farmers get too much hassle from people; it’s not funny. Can’t even let water back into the river from the patch. People complain fertilizer washing back into river. Pretty soon we have to quit. Why? Too much hassle. EPA jumps on us for herbicide; how spray; how drift. Gotta wear hat, glove, mask, breather, pants, boots. Have to wear protective clothing to protect yourself from mist and spray. You try wear all that clothing and do it.”
These Hanalei farmers have spent their lives in the kalo patches and know the exhaustion that comes with their chosen life-style. But as much as the old-timers grouse about their work, there is genuine melancholy in their voices when they consider the future.
“We’re losing land ’cause it getting swamp,” one said, “’cause farmers won’t cooperate to clear drainage ditches. Old days, thirty to forty in a group would spend one day each month cleaning ditch. If don’t go up every month, pebbles fill up ditch. Gets hard like concrete. Irrigation system all screwed up.
“Farmers get the short end no matter how you look at it. Middle man making all the money and no hassle. You don’t find too many rich farmers. . . . My land more valuable for building homes than taro field. Everybody look for land. They don’t care price. If I sell my land, I don’t have to work hard.”
Clarence Kaona’s five acres were part of the 395 kalo-producing acres statewide that yielded about four million pounds of poi kalo in 1993. Another 215 acres yielded about two million pounds of “Chinese” dryland kalo, which is boiled like potatoes or sliced and fried into snack chips. When David Kaona moved his family to Hanalei in 1946, kalo farmers across the state cultivated a thousand acres, and Hawai‘i didn’t import any kalo. Forty-seven years later, the state imports about 600,000 pounds of fresh kalo a year from American and Western Samoa.
Ancient Hawaiians had 150 names for eighty different varieties of kalo. Today, farmers and poi processors favor the lehua variety, which has the consistent quality, color, and taste expected by consumers. But the lehua variety requires lots of cold water to grow, and the root must be harvested in mud, a manual labor no one has figured out how to mechanize. Some wetland farmers switch to growing dryland kalo because it is easier to handle and commands high prices on the U.S. mainland.
“Taro was the staple for the Hawaiians, but the modern age hasn’t rediscovered it,” said Ernest Tottori, president of Honolulu Poi Company and grandson of the firm’s founder. “I’m hoping and praying that one day poi will be rediscovered. Lot of people know about it, but supply has been the biggest problem. There is a different type of generation [now], more educated, and if we can educate them with this product, there’s a big future market for it. The new generation has a chance.”
Tottori is not alone with this dream. Jim Hollyer, with red hair and sunburned skin that looks out of place in the kalo fields, sees real potential for kalo. A former Peace Corps worker, Hollyer is the point man for kalo at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Hawai‘i. He and his colleagues want to expand the statewide crop beyond the six million pounds of dry and wet varieties marketed in 1993.
Hollyer believes Hawai‘i is capable of producing enough kalo to satisfy demand for the entire United States. He has discovered that the potential market for all varieties of Hawai‘i kalo exceeds the forty-seven million pounds that the United States imports annually, mostly from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Western Samoa. He is trying to develop ways to help farmers manage their businesses and promote the crop. And he envisions new uses for kalo, particularly marketing it nationally as a nutritious, hypoallergenic food with more iron, calories, and vitamins B and C than rice.
Millions of people in the United States suffer from food allergies, and Hollyer persuaded a Hawai‘i company, C. Brewer, to try growing a white variety of kalo that could be processed into flour and used in allergen-free foods. If the five-acre experiment succeeds, C. Brewer has the capability to expand to meet the market, Hollyer reasoned, because the company already manages large agricultural plantations and knows how to keep costs down. “We are not messing with the existing poi industry. We are trying to create a whole new product line based on a variety of taro that hasn’t been grown commercially.”
The few Hawaiians willing to follow in their ancestors’ muddy footsteps find they can hardly afford to try it. More than a decade ago, experts estimated a full-time kalo farmer needed twelve acres to produce a livable income, along with capitalization of about $35,000 for startup costs and equipment. And this did not include the cost of land, which has skyrocketed in recent years, or housing and food. There would be no income for two years, but after four good years, the experts predicted, a farmer and his family could live off the income--provided there were no problems with water supply, aphid infestations, plagues of corm-eating snails, or the people who steal kalo leaves for lū‘au.
Water supply is a major frustration for kalo farmers. For generations, owners of the large plantations used water as if it were their own, siphoning public streams to irrigate their pineapple and sugarcane fields. In the 1920s, Lihue Plantation tunneled one mile through the Makaleha Mountains and began diverting as much as thirty million gallons of water a day from the Hanalei watershed to irrigate sugarcane fields in Wailua on the east side of Kaua‘i. On the other Hawaiian islands, housing, resorts, and golf courses have claimed much of the water.
“Some Hawaiians living in Hāna, on Maui, commute four to five hours a day to jobs at hotels in Kapalua and Lahaina,” observed native attorney Williamson B. C. Chang. “If taro cultivation and diversified farming were commercially feasible, many would rather be farming their own lands and living near their families.”
In a memo to U.S. congressional staff members investigating Hawaiian water rights, Chang wrote:

Without water, land is valueless. If Hawaiians do not claim their rightful share of water, others--developers, cities, golf course owners--will claim and use these waters. State and county planners have little inclination to support a rural Hawaiian life-style in their plans. The waters that are at stake in these legal contests will either support taro farms or resort developments. Given the vast difference in the money at stake for interested parties, no one in the private sector is encouraging or assisting Hawaiians in asserting their valid claims to water. . . . Hawaiians are simply not aware of their rights, nor adequately represented.

In 1973, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court took a major step when it ruled that the state owned all waters as trustee for the people, and kalo farmers had legal rights to water in streams next to their terraces. State legislators later adopted a code allowing water users to register their water use and protect themselves. Anxious that the state’s registration effort would overlook small-quantity water users, Chang and fellow Hawaiian attorney Elizabeth Pa Martin formed the Native Hawaiian Advisory Council to help register kalo growers like Clarence Kaona. Law students volunteered to visit Clarence and other farmers to inform them of the new code. Without such outreach, Martin and Chang feared a double loss--Hawaiians with existing farms might lose the water they already depended on, and farmers who wanted to establish new lo‘i or restore old ones might not have water made available to them.
Close to Clarence Kaona’s Wai‘oli farm, at Waipā, the Hawaiian Farmers of Hanalei group is trying to revive a complex of abandoned kalo terraces. Even more rain falls in Waipā than in Hanalei, and over the years the neglected Waipā terraces had turned into bogs. After four years of negotiations with the landowner, Bishop Estate, the group secured a lease for a 1,600-acre property extending from the mountains all the way down to Hanalei Bay. Hawaiians call this kind of district an ahupua‘a. Before Western contact, ahupua‘a provided complete sustenance for the Hawaiian people, from kalo and other upland crops to fish and seaweed from the ocean.
The Hawaiians at Waipā envision the ancient ahupua‘a restored. They grow kalo and native medicinal plants, and fish Hanalei Bay with canoes. The group hopes that one day the federal and state governments will return lands taken from the kingdom of Hawai‘i, and people will be able to see at Waipā a Hawaiian model for developing a subsistence-style economy.
To survive, the Waipā farmers have to rely on hard work and ingenuity. They established a tropical plant nursery to qualify for a government agricultural loan. The loan allowed them to purchase equipment to grow and harvest poi kalo and exotic flower crops such as torch ginger and bird of paradise. Profits from the exotics also help subsidize seminars, including a six-week kalo production course developed with Kaua‘i Community College. It teaches students every aspect of kalo production--how to prepare the land, and then how to plant, fertilize, cultivate, and harvest.
But the Hawaiian farmers at Waipā, as well as those who established a kalo growers’ association for West Maui and Moloka‘i, encounter the same problems that confront Clarence Kaona and other Hanalei farmers. A lot of people dream about farming kalo, but only a handful have the discipline and strength to continue the hard work day after day; the knowledge to cope with buyers, competitive crops, fluctuations in the kalo market, and the labyrinth of federal grants; the willingness to cooperate with other farmers, landowners, or wholesalers, whom they may not trust or like; and the patience to rebuild after bugs, floods, mistakes, or hurricanes damage their crops.
When Hurricane ‘Iniki ripped up Kaua‘i in 1992, it destroyed Clarence’s house and his mother’s. Wind and rain stunted the kalo crop, and Clarence, like other Kaua‘i farmers, had to harvest prematurely. The housing shortage forced the Kaonas into an expensive Princeville condominium, and after several weeks their federal assistance ran out. “‘Iniki made it a little bit rough for us because we don’t have a place [of our own] to stay. We just got to hang on and hope there is something better.”
For Clarence, hope, hard work, and hanging on are the prerequisites to surviving as a kalo farmer. “It’s a good thing that they are doing, trying to get the Hawaiians back into farming taro. But if you weren’t raised with your parents in the taro field, it’s not very easy to do it. It’s hard work. From my experience, you have to be raised in the taro field to like taro farming.”

In Hanalei, Miriam Kaona washes the small, leftover kalo in an irrigation ditch that flows beside a crumbling shack--the family’s kalo-processing headquarters. Patiently, she pours water and the cleaned kalo into a 55-gallon drum that rests on two I-beams straddling a pit beneath the eaves of the shack. She stuffs burlap sacks on top of the kalo and covers the drum with a sheet of corrugated steel. Underneath the drum she builds a fire with scraps of tar paper and salvaged lumber. An oil-soaked newspaper ignites the fire, and the kalo is left to boil for two hours. Periodically, Miriam checks the fire, then steps back to escape the smoke. “I don’t know who’s going to do this after I’m gone,” she said.
Later, Miriam peels the kalo and grinds it twice with the Model A contraption fashioned by her husband forty-five years ago. On the third and final grind, she adds fresh water from home to thin the poi. “Our friends always say we make the best poi,” Clarence said. “They know the difference between the poi we make and the poi you get in the store.”
While Miriam drips water into the Model A grinder, Clarence finishes mowing the banks of his lo‘i. Behind him, the green mountain glistens after an evening rain. “Sometimes I come out here just to wind down,” he said, after parking the mower. “I bring my two kids up here and they run around. I hope one of them will take over, but I don’t know. Wife says she’ll probably move back to the mainland after I die. Her family all living up there. Like I told you, taro patch is kind of hard life.”

Clarence Eli Kaona: Mahi`ai / Farming