HANALEI, Hawaii — The picturesque Hanalei Valley, with lush fields and single-lane highway bridges, has a quaintness and beauty on Kauai's north shore that tourists and movie producers find appealing.
But the valley is important for more than its beauty. It is where much of the state’s taro — used to make the traditional Hawaiian food poi — is grown.
Though their crop is unusual in the United States, the farmers here face challenges similar to those of their colleagues in other states — and some that are strikingly different.
Five generations of the Haraguchi family have farmed on the island. The family now hopes their farm can survive into the sixth generation.
It’s not easy, family members say. Only 30 acres remain in production on 55 acres leased from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that is part of the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge.
Taro is a perennial tropical plant grown in Hawaii, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe for its corm, or root tuber, that is eaten as a starchy vegetable. Its leaves are also edible, and it is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants.
Hawaiian taro production has been declining in recent years for several reasons, including high costs, disease, apple snails that eat the base of the plants, protected bird species that eat the crop and flash floods, Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama, 34, the fifth-generation farmer of the family, said.
Labor and fuel costs are also increasing, but taro prices remain low, bringing just 50 to 60 cents per pound.
Because of these factors, the number of Hawaiian taro farms is shrinking — from 173 in the USDA Agricultural Census of 2002 to 158 in 2007.
Kauai produces 81 percent of the taro in the state, but Haraguchi-Nakayama said only a few farmers, including herself, are trying to keep growing taro through her generation.
“You have to be a little stubborn, have a little perseverance to be a farmer right now,” she said.
Survival of their farm and of taro in Hawaii is a question mark, she said.
“We pray every day our farm will be able to survive to the next generation, but when it comes down to it, whether perseverance or prayer, it’s all in God’s hands,” Haraguchi-Nakayama said.
Hawaiian taro production peaked at 1,020 acres and 14.2 million pounds in 1948, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. The crop’s value peaked at $3.7 million in 2000. Since then, taro acreage and value have continued to shrink until last year 3.5 million pounds of taro valued at $2.3 million was grown on 400 acres.
The more than half a dozen taro farms that remain in the Hanalei Valley are challenged in working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, said Roy Yamakawa, administrator of the University of Hawaii Extension in Kauai.
Three of the five endangered bird species that live on the refuge consume 30 percent of the taro crop, Haraguchi-Nakayama said. They are the Nene, which is the state bird; the ’Alae ’Ula Moorhen; and the ’Alae Ke’oKe’o-Coot.
The state is working with the agency “to try to make it a win-win for everyone regarding the birds so they can peacefully coexist,” said Mark Hudson, state NASS statistician in Honolulu.
The Haraguchis are respectful and protective of the wildlife. Virtually all their farming practices have to be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Beside nature’s challenges, there’s the dynamic of younger locals and new residents to Hawaii who prefer foods that are cheaper and more familiar, Yamakawa said.
“Fewer people are eating poi also because the price of poi has gone up significantly in the last five years from $4 to $7 to $8 per pound,” he said.
“Taro is an acquired taste and traditional cultural food. If you don’t grow up with it, you don’t stick with it,” Yamakawa said.
Love of family and farm
Haraguchi-Nakayama has a deep love for her family and the farm that is evident in weekly tours she gives tourists.
Proceeds from the tours go to a nonprofit organization that keeps the family’s rice mill — the last in Hawaii — in operation as a museum. The guided tours are the only public access allowed on the farm.
She tells about being immersed in farm life early on, diving into a watery, muddy taro field head-first while reaching for a taro leaf when she was 2 years old. She helped her father drive tractors to higher ground out of a flood’s reach when she was 6.
She remembers working the taro barefoot before sharp-shelled apple snails infested the fields, forcing workers to wear rubber boots to protect their feet. Boots make the work slower and more tiring.
Haraguchi-Nakayama got her bachelor’s degree in tropical horticulture from the University of Hawaii in Manoa and her master’s degree in business administration from Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu.
She married her husband, Brad Nakayama, in 2005. He helps on the farm and loves to cook. Using family recipes, he makes all the food for the family’s Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. farm fresh products.
They also have a daughter, 6, and son, 3.
Haraguchi-Nakayama’s parents, Rodney and Karol Haraguchi, remain active in the farm, as are Rodney’s parents, William and Janet Haraguchi, who are 91 and 89, respectively. William still drives a tractor pulling a platform to level fields for planting, a task he did using horses until the mid-1980s.
His grandparents started farming in the valley.
The museum rice mill, now known as the Ho’opulapula Haraguichi Rice Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by Chinese and operated from the 1800s until the early 1960s. The Haraguchi family bought it in 1924. It was rebuilt in 1930 following a fire and in 1982 and 1992, following hurricanes Iwa and Iniki, respectively. Artifacts were saved and a nonprofit organization was formed to preserve the mill as a hands-on educational tool for school children and adults.
It was the last rice mill operating in Hawaii and kept going as long as it did because it had a diesel engine that made it more reliable than others. It also kept more rice kernels whole than other mills.
The Hanalei pier, now a favorite of photographers and used for swimming and fishing, was built in the 1920s for shipping rice to the other islands.
Rice vanished because production was too small and not mechanized. The paddies were also plagued by floods and disease. The Haraguchis grew okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, bell peppers and cabbage during and after World War II. They still do some of that but since the 1970s they have concentrated on taro. In 1983, the family replanted a field to rice for the movie, “Uncommon Valor,” to look like Vietnam. It starred Patrick Swayze and Gene Hackman.
Seven employees work the Haraguchi taro fields, pushing metal sleds, designed by Rodney, full of harvested taro over watery, muddy fields to roads where they are bagged and loaded into a pickup truck. Tubers and some leaves are harvested. Those that aren’t go back into the soil. Stems become huli, new plants used to replant.
Crops take 14 to 16 months to mature. Planting is staggered to maintain constant production. Differences in color reflect different stages of growth.
Pesticides are not used to control diseases or the apple snails because taro leaves naturally repel liquids. The Haraguchis also want to keep production natural and protect the birds. Pesticides are not registered for use on wetland taro, and even if they were the USFWS may not allow them, Yamakawa said.
Wild boars pose a special problem.
“Two to three wild boars can come through and wipe out over an acre of taro in one night,” Haraguchi-Nakayama said.
That happens only occasionally, as does a newer problem affecting the farm — thieves stealing rare coconuts and cutting down trees for the bananas.
A still greater threat is frequent flash floods. There are dry and wetland varieties of taro, but the Haraguchi family grows wetland varieties using gravity irrigation canals fed by the Hanalei River. Saturation of fields gives added color and texture to the plants.
But too much water is disruptive.
“When you can count over a dozen waterfalls off Mount Namolokama and Mamalahoa, it’s pouring rain in Hanalei and the river is brown and rising, you know a flood is coming,” Haraguchi-Nakayama said. Flash floods are common, averaging five a year, because Kauai’s mountains are among the wettest places on earth, averaging 460 inches of rain annually.
The Haraguchis have evacuated numerous times, seen damage to their houses and equipment and seen acres of huli washed out to sea by floods more than 5 feet deep across the farm.
Most of the Haraguchi family’s taro goes to poi millers who bake or steam it, add water and mash it to various consistencies for local consumption. A small percentage is used in value-added products from family recipes sold at the family’s Hanalei Taro & Juice Co.
“Growing up with taro, it’s taro burgers, taro hummus, Kulolo, taro mochi cake, taro lavosh, taro cookies and taro pancakes. As a farmer we don’t want to waste anything,” Haraguchi-Nakayama said.
“People say it’s bland, that it tastes like wallpaper paste,” she said. “But most cultural staples are bland but not eaten alone.”
Taro can be tasty when other ingredients are added, she said. It adds calcium to the Taro & Juice Co.’s smoothies and without dairy is great for people who are lactose intolerant, she said.
Gerber, the maker of baby food, and McDonald’s have inquired with the Haraguchis about producing taro for their products, but the family replied that they can’t supply enough to meet those needs.
“We are doing our best,” Haraguchi-Nakayama said, “to meet local needs for sustainability and cultural importance for the Hawaiian islands.”