Taro - The Root of Hawaiian Culture
The Hanalei Taro Farm is one of the most photographed locations on the entire island of Kauai. Learn more about the farm, what it grows, and the family that has worked the land for six generations.
If you’ve ever been to a luau, you’ve seen or possibly tasted poi, the smooth, purple and somewhat soupy food made with kalo (taro). Among the two dozen “canoe plants” brought to the Hawaiian Islands by migrating Polynesians, this staple was cultivated in valleys that included Hanalei on Kauai’s north shore.
Today, the sixth generation of the Haraguchi family continues to harvest the vegetable root by hand in the same lo’i (kalo fields) as it has for more than a century. Known as Hanalei Taro Farm to many - especially within the community and on social media - the 33-acre spread was officially renamed W.T. Haraguchi Farm during its third generation of operation.
“There is no machine invented to plant, harvest and weed taro in a lo’i wetland taro patch,” says Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama. “We do it all by hand.”
Preserving Hawaii’s Culture & Traditions
While Lyndsey describes taro farming as backbreaking, she knows that it’s necessary for perpetuating this Hawaiian agricultural tradition. “The kuleana (responsibility) of a farmer is to provide food for the community - not only for the island of Kauai but for the entire state of Hawaii, no matter the challenges.”
Lyndsey notes that in areas of the farm that are part of a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Refuge, the family continues to malama (care for) the `aina (land) by providing habitat to five endangered native water bird species. “We help biologists scout for endangered bird nests. And where there is a nest, we leave a radius of taro unharvested to leave a nesting environment for the young.”
During farm ecotours that can be booked at HaraguchiRiceMill.org, she demonstrates the art of pounding kalo corm (underground plant stem) into Pa’i’ai. This pre-water version is considered much more flavorful than poi.
Tour proceeds are earmarked for educational programs and to fund the restoration of the family’s 501c(3) nonprofit Ho’opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill agrarian museum that suffered flood damage in April 2018. The last and only historic rice mill left in the state of Hawaii, it is listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
As Kauai’s rice industry collapsed and the mill ceased operations in 1960, the nonprofit organization was formed to preserve the artifacts and history of those who have farmed in the community and in Hawaii for generations. In doing so, it has welcomed thousands of school children via educational field trips.
In the Hawaiian language, Ho`opulapula means “to plant the seedlings of.” “Whether it was seedlings of rice or taro, the mission also includes planting seeds of knowledge of agricultural and environmental awareness in children, so that the next generation can appreciate all that their kupuna (elders) and ancestors have done and how hard farmers work today,” says Lyndsey.
Even if you don’t like the flavor of poi by itself, don’t rule out this Hawaiian Super Food that’s packed with benefits. “Poi is traditional and nutritious, with minerals, micronutrients, calcium, and natural probiotics to help with your digestive system,” says Lyndsey.
Sharing the health wealth, she and her family twist the plant’s use to create Taro Mochi Cake, Zesty Taro Hummus, Hanalei Taro Veggie Burgers, Kulolo, and Taro Smoothies served at Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. lunch wagon off Kuhio Highway in Hanalei Town.
Since it doesn't require refrigeration and has a long “shelf life,” many consider the purple food as a Hawaiian version of peanut butter. At a luau, many add lomi lomi salmon to their poi to give it a saltier flavor.
You’ll also find delicious spins on the staple with poi mochi donuts, pancakes and breads served at Oahu’s Liliha Bakery, taro pie at McDonalds, and taro chips at local grocery stores and markets. Aside from being fun to eat because of the purple color, these foods are also ono-licious (delicious) and nutritious.
10 Fun Facts About Kalo & Poi
1) Kalo was one of the few sacred canoe plants brought to the islands by early Polynesian migrants.
2) Native Hawaiians considered kalo so supreme in importance that it is defined in the Kumulipo (Hawaiian Creation Chant) as the plant from which Hawaiians were formed.
3) Hawaiians cultivated taro into more than 300 forms for adapting to climate and soil conditions that varied from island to island.
4) Kauai's North Shore is home to the largest acreage of wetland taro in the state.
5) Taro must be cooked before being eaten. While all parts of the plant may be consumed, eating the raw corm will cause an itchy throat.
6) The Hawaiian style of cooking taro is to steam it skin-on, and then to scrape off the skin before preparing it for dishes.
7) Taro root is an excellent source of fiber and resistant starch that is known to lower cholesterol and has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
8) When converted to a powered form, taro can be used as a flour to make pizza dough, tortillas, flatbread and even dim sum wrappers.
9) Due to its suggested healing powers, taro was once used for medicinal purposes.
10) Taro farmers often spend the day in knee high water planting, harvesting and weeding.
Special thanks for the amazing photos provided by Kahahawai Photography, Heather Goodman for HVCB, Hawaii Rooted Seeds of Perseverance, Mike Coots for Hawaii Business Magazine and to Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama for helping us share the story of her families farm.