Meet the Taro Farmer Restoring an Ecosystem Through Native Hawaiian Practices


Sprouting deep within the verdant pleats of Oʻahu’s Koʻolau Mountains, Heʻeia stream winds through Kakoʻo ʻOʻiwi, a non-profit company fixated a six-acre taro farm, before clearing into the broad mouth of Kane’ohe Bay.

In 2001, executive director Kanekoa Shultz, a marine biologist and seaweed specialist, assisted restore the surrounding Paepae o Heʻeia fishpond. Initially built by Native Hawaiians centuries before colonization, the effort reanimated a 1.3-mile rock-walled lagoon utilized for aquaculture. When heavy rains consistently choked the basin with sediment, Shultz understood that the pond was however one piece of a bigger environment in alarming requirement of rehab.

Six years later on, Shultz went on to develop Kakoʻo ʻOʻiwi (the name approximately equates to “Helping Native Hawaiians”) on an untended, 405-acre parcel situated straight throughout from the fishpond. Ever since, he’s led the incremental effort to bring back the fallowed land into loʻi kalo, the conventional Hawaiian watering system utilized to grow kalo, the Indigenous name for taro.

Enlisting a personnel of 16 and an army of volunteers, the company cultivates the crop in knee-deep water diverted from Heʻeia stream. In addition to providing the neighborhood with spinach-like leaves and fresh corms high in calcium and fiber, an on-site kitchen area produces value-added items such as poi, or taro pounded into a starchy staple, and kulolo, a conventional pudding sweetened with coconut milk and raw sugar.

Kakoʻo Oʻiwi’s efforts, nevertheless, extend far beyond promoting Native farming customs and nurturing the neighborhood. Its farming practices likewise assist re-establish a crucial eco-friendly function: The irrigated ponds take in floodwater and filter sediment streaming to the sea while the crops develop wildlife environment and curb intrusive plant development. As stewards of both island culture and surface, “we’re bring back pono– bring back balance to the land,” states Shultz.

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Shultz (ideal) leads volunteers in shredding taro. (Photo: Naoki Nitta)

Funded mainly by personal and neighborhood donors, it’s a high order for the scrappy non-profit, which runs under a 38-year lease given by the state in 2009. The concentrate on preservation, nevertheless, is important, he includes, for undoing years of overlook and reducing the obstacles of a quickly altering environment.

Heavy, mad water

As a main food source, kalo holds a reverent location in Native Hawaiian culture, playing a popular function in its origin story. Before the occurrence of massive, Western farming, “every valley that had a stream had a kalo plantation,” states Derek Kekaulike Mar, as he assists peel stacks of raw taro tagged for a batch of kulolo. A youth pal of Shultz’s, the regular volunteer works for a subsidiary of the Hawaiian Native Corporation, a Native-run, not-for-profit neighborhood effect company and a Kakoʻo Oʻiwi donor.

Hawaiians typically divided land into ahupuaʻa, or self-sufficient systems of farming production that extend in between the mountains and the ocean. In addition to taro spots, the triangular swaths incorporated a variety of surface, from upland lumber forests to rain-fed crop fields and orchards in the lowlands. And in lots of locations, they encompassed a fishpond– ancient Hawaiians developed almost 500 throughout the islands– with all the pieces linked by a stream.

Recent research has actually revealed that this farming system, while just taking in 6 percent of land, enabled the islands to be self-dependent in feeding an approximated pre-colonial population of 1.2 million. The research study, which was performed through Kamehameha Schools, an independent school system devoted to informing kids with Hawaiian origins, concludes that the very same approaches might feed 86 percent of the state’s present population of 1.4 million– a striking finding for an island chain that now imports almost 90 percent of its food while exporting 80 percent of its crops.

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Staff member and Farmer Specialist Nick Reppun steams loʻi. (Photo: Naoki Nitta)

Within each ahupuaʻa, a network of taro ponds operated as surrogate wetlands, managing the flux of water and eliminating pollutants streaming downstream. “So the health of the kalo is a sign of health for the entire environment,” Mar describes.

Colonization and the imposition of personal land ownership developed seismic shifts in both Native culture and the landscape. As massive sugarcane and pineapple plantations started growing in the mid-19th century, they took in land by the 10s of countless acres and siphoned water materials, ultimately drying up most of loʻi kalo throughout the islands.

In the ahupuaʻa of Heʻeia, various taro fields had actually laid fallow given that the 1940s, till Kakoʻo Oʻiwi started repair. Those efforts, nevertheless, are important to a higher system: They bridge the work of Papahana Kuaola, an academic non-profit that keeps upstream waters and forests devoid of particles and intrusive, non-native plants, with the working fishpond situated downstream.

Together, the triad works to preserve a tidy supply of water for the estuary while nurturing a variety of Native crops. Kalo, both inland companies cultivate ulu (breadfruit), sweet potatoes and bananas, while the ponds support herbivorous fish such as ‘ama’ama (striped mullet), awa (milkfish) and pualu (surgeonfish), as well as crab and shrimp.

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Loʻi kalo at Kakoʻo ʻOʻiwi. (Photo: Naoki Nitta)

The conventional farming system likewise supports native animals, consisting of the threatened ‘alae ‘ula (Hawaiian moorhen). The red-beaked waterbird, whose population hovers around 1,000, nests in taro spots, making the loʻi kalo an important environment.

Increasingly unpredictable weather condition patterns have actually likewise made taro farming main to keeping the health of the environment. The previous 8 years have actually brought “more rain bombs,” states Shultz. While rain falls with less frequency, each storm brings more volume, upping the capacity for “heavy, mad water.”

Because flood pulses suffocate the estuary, the health of the fishpond and reef beyond is straight based on the purification system, states Shultz. Kalo fields are extremely efficient at soaking up floodwater. “One acre can bank about a foot of water,” he states. “If you increase that over a hundred acres– that’s over 30 million gallons of water [banked] per rain occasion.” Attain that, and “now you’re really beginning to develop some [meaningful] environment adjustment.”

Building a well balanced system

Currently, the 50 acres of fields yield around 600 pounds of taro a week. Shultz’s objective is to triple production, scaling up has its obstacles: Cultivation is a year-round, labor-intensive task that includes planting 1,000 bulbs weekly, in standing water, and gathering an equivalent quantity.

In addition to offering poi and kulolo, the farm is diversifying its profits stream by integrating non-traditional practices. “We’re looking after the land that’s continual us for countless years– in a modern system,” states Shultz. “It’s a balance,” just like him, he includes– a Native Hawaiian and a mix of other ethnic backgrounds. In addition to a mushroom-growing center in the works, he’s included high-value lumber such as mahogany trees; 90 heads of sheep that slaughter weeds and other intrusive plants; and pigs that take in food and crop scraps such as hairy and hard taro peels. “We’ll be consuming those buggers quickly,” he states of the animals. “We offer them, we trade them, we provide away.”

Despite these ventures, the non-profit presently stays 90 percent based on grants. Still, “the biological returns far exceed our farming earnings,” states Shultz, and the financial investment in the land extends far beyond the reaches of the ahupuaʻa.

Between food sovereignty, environment durability and restoring cultural practices, “you can put all sort of labels” on these efforts, states Shultz. Eventually, they all support one objective: “It’s the capability for us to identify our own future.”


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