Taro Today, Poi Tomorrow – A Sustainable Local Food System Takes Root in Kauai, Hawaii
August 21, 2017 | Trish Popovitch
“Taro farmers are my heroes and I wanted to emulate the people I admired and respected. Farming was a big part of my life so I wanted to become a farmer,” says Adam Asquith, founder of Kealia Farm, Kauai, HI. Initially rejecting the farming tradition of his Wisconsin youth, Asquith spent a few years exploring the career market only to decide that the tradition of farming did mean a lot to him after all. So much so in fact, he moved to Hawaii and established a taro farm. For Asquith, it was more than the challenge of it; it was about retaining the tradition of taro farming in Hawaii and turning his 30 acres of irrigated green space into an example of what can be done in terms of sustainable agriculture education and farming on the “Garden Isle” of Kauai.
“I’ve been chasing farmland for 20 years. I’ve been slowly building the farm for the last ten years. It’s not like farming in the Midwest where you just go out in the field and plant,” says Asquith. “Taro farming requires building infrastructure, rice paddy type systems, miles and miles of irrigation pipe… it’s been a slow process the building.”
Unlike many traditional taro farmers who inherit land and start ‘in the black,’ Asquith purchased his 30 acre sugarcane plantation ten years ago and set about constructing irrigation pipelines to utilize the abundant water all around him. 30 acres is a large family farm in Hawaii and as Asquith explained, concepts of mainland farming scope and size do not adequately translate to the Islands.
Traditionally a South East Asian Old World tuber and common today on the African continent, taro root is wet farmed in Hawaii, a method often referred to as ‘wet rice agriculture.’ In Africa, dry farming with seasonal flood irrigation is more typical. “This kind of planting and the production it allows them to achieve has changed the culture of the people in Hawaii and effectively turned it into a taro culture,” says Asquith.
Taro is embedded in the folklore and origin stories of Hawaii, playing a central role in the people’s collective identity. Another unique aspect of Hawaii’s taro farming tradition is the production of its staple taro based food, Poi. Although grown using the same methods across the world, taro is only turned into Poi in Hawaii. This processing is a unique adaption to the local environment.
“Poi is essentially a non-dairy yoghurt. When we prepare it, we pick it up with our hands and we inoculate it from the lactose bacteria on our hands and then it goes through an acid fermentation bath. In the tropics it’s a little difficult to ferment things. Unlike cheeses that require refrigeration I have poi sitting on a shelf that’s months old. It will get a layer of good mould like one of those good cheeses but it’s perfectly edible.”
Poi is considered sacred in Hawaii and Hawaii’s farming tradition is well established. Its self sufficiency, however, is not. Indeed, 90 percent of the food consumed on the Hawaiian Islands is imported from the mainland. And although the ‘grown here not flown here’ environmental movement is gaining ground, it has taken the burgeoning agritourism market to bring broader awareness to the issues faced by Hawaii’s small growers. “Our first goal is to try to feed our community and reduce the amount of food that we import.”
By partnering with a local value added food manufacturer, Kealia Farm is able to provide raw Poi for another local family owned business while benefitting from the investment made in Kealia Farm by the food manufacturer in order for them to secure a steady healthy supply of Poi. The rest of Asquith’s food production is sold at Asquith’s farm market, an attempt to revitalize local food and provide an outlet for local produce. By remaining a private farm market rather than a public farmers’ market, Asquith can assure customers of the source and quality of the product, working with a few vetted local growers.
Kealia Farm uses agritourism to stay ‘out of the red’ as taro farming, according to Asquith, is sustainable but it does not leave any surplus budget. “If you do not work another job and can just be a farmer, that’s a fair measure of success in Hawaii,” says Asquith. By offering comprehensive farm tours including taro and Poi educational programming (not to mention the wagon rides), Asquith is able to charge a premium per person tour rate increasing his bottom line while aiding in the promotion of a traditional farming method.
Future plans for the farm include experimenting with aquaponic units, expanding their line of value added non-Poi products and actually doubling the size of the farm to accommodate their corporate partner. Despite the limitations of Hawaii, its potential wins out for Asquith who is hopeful for the state’s more sustainable future and the continuation of generational farming on the islands.
“I’m optimistic. It all comes back to relationships. Taro is considered the first born, it’s a family member. Propagation is by offshoot; you can’t buy a seed. You have to go to a farmer and work with them to get your planting material so it’s all about relationships. Poi is a sustainable agriculture method. It provides a noble and viable economic opportunity for our local kids. We want to make sure if they want to stay home and live a more traditional lifestyle that opportunity is here for them.”