The Essential Guide to Taro: Three Farms Connecting Culture with Community
Plus, seven tips for cultivating taro at home.
Lindsey Ozawa and Kapaihi Umebayashi of Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi work in one of the lo‘i on the He‘eia farm.
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
It’s hard to imagine Lindsey Ozawa in his former life, presiding over the hectic kitchen of Nobu Waikīkī as chef de cuisine, or as owner at Prima in Kailua. He just seems so comfortable in his new role at Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi, tinkering with a tractor and mapping out the crops he needs to plant.
“I’ve always worked in food, but just on the other side,” Ozawa says, walking along rows of asparagus, corn and kalo on this 403-acre property in He‘eia. When he left Prima six years ago to start his own restaurant, he decided, in the meantime, to take a job he’ll likely never do again: farming. He joined the small staff at Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi in April 2014—and is still there. “I’m old for a chef but young for a farmer,” says the 41-year-old, laughing. “This is the continuation of the food chain, just on the opposite end.”
Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi is a community-based nonprofit that has a 38-year lease agreement with the state to restore the agricultural and ecological productivity of these wetlands. Kalo is the farm’s primary crop, with dozens of varieties growing here. Ozawa walks me through the patches, pointing out different kinds of kalo. “Here, this one,” he says, pointing to some mana lauloa plants, which is the preferred variety for making kūlolo, “I like the way the plant looks and it produces really tasty kalo. And this one,” he points to the mana ‘ulu, which has a fleshy, yellow corm, “totally destroys any preconceived notion that kalo has to be purple.”
With his connections to chefs, Ozawa sells the kalo and other veggies and fruits grown here to local restaurants, including Koko Head Café, Juicy Brew and Chef Mavro. The farm also provides taro to community groups and charter schools.
Plans for Kāko‘o include expanding its community adopt-a-lo‘i program, in which families take care of a specific patch and get half of the harvest, and raising enough money to build a poi mill and certified kitchen on the farm. Ozawa is already thinking about making udon and risotto out of kalo.
46-406 Kamehameha Highway, Kāne‘ohe, (808) 741-3403, kakoooiwi.org
Green, glistening and growing—the wetland taro fields stretch across Hanalei Valley. They are a testament to the perseverance of the members of the Haraguchi family, which has owned and worked the fields for six generations. Fifth-generation Kaua‘i farmer Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama spends her days working on the farm, together with her children—when she’s not busy leading tours for schools and other visitors.
Lyndsey’s great-great-grandfather, Tomejiri Haraguchi, began working the fields in 1924, and her great-grandfather, Kahyohei, continued the tradition, followed by grandparents William and Janet, and parents Rodney and Karol. They’re also deeply invested in preserving the history of Kaua‘i’s agricultural scene. The family owns Ho‘opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill, the only existing rice mill in Hawai‘i.
Together with her parents, Lyndsey takes students on rice mill and taro farm tours, available through reservations online. The guided tours are limited to once a week so as not to disrupt nearby nesting areas for endangered birds.
“As a nonprofit organization, the Ho‘opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill’s guest tours, donations and gift shop purchases help support education programs and restoration efforts,” Lyndsey says.
To help the family business survive to the next generation, the Haraguchis also founded Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. in 2000. Through this separate food venture, Hanalei-grown taro is sold at lunch wagons, farmers markets across the Islands and in stores including Pono Market, Dani’s Restaurant, Times Supermarket and Tamura’s.
Hanalei Taro relies on family recipes, Lyndsey says. “Our grandparents and great-grandparents tell stories of how they ate whatever crop was in season, and the same holds true with our lunch wagons now,” she says.
The lunch wagon menus include kūlolo, taro hummus, Hanalei taro veggie burgers, taro mochi cake and original taro smoothies.
Ka‘ala Farm, an agricultural learning center that cultivates much more than kalo, has deep roots. The 15-acre, wet- and dryland farm is immersed in culture, grounded in Wai‘anae Valley with a strong sense of place. Its mission: preserving Hawaiian traditions and reconnecting people with the land.
The farms welcome community groups and schools. More than 3,000 students from across the island visit each year to take part in hands-on science programs and internships.
“It’s all about a universal connection to the earth,” says executive director Eric Enos. “Children need things that are real. They need to have a sense of place and pride. You can teach kids theory, but it’s good for them to see the land, where the water and the food come from, and see it in an ancient setting like Ka‘ala Farm. There’s a transformation when they get a sense of reality.”
The farm also partners with Ho‘omau Ke Ola, a treatment and recovery program based on Hawai‘i traditions.
“Participants come to the lo‘i once a week. These people have very little connection to their culture—as Hawaiians, cultural traumas are passed down to them. They find healing when they connect with their roots at the lo‘i,” says Enos.
While Ka‘ala’s kalo isn’t sold commercially, Enos says the public is welcome to visit the farm on ‘Ohana Day, which is the third Saturday of the month, to harvest and cook your own kalo and experience what Ka‘ala is all about.
85-555 Farrington Highway, Wai‘anae, (808) 696-4954, kaalafarm.org —MK
Interested in growing taro but don’t own a lo‘i?
You actually don’t need one, says expert Susan Miyasaka, interim Hawai‘i County administrator of UH’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences. You can grow kalo in your backyard or even on your lānai. Here are seven tips to cultivating taro at home:
1. All you need is huli.
Taro is planted using what’s called vegetative propagules (either small corms or shoots). The corms or huli, which you can get from kalo-growing friends or farmers, can be planted directly in the ground or in containers. You can also buy kalo plants from local nurseries.
2. You don’t need a lot of space.
If you have a big area in your backyard to grow kalo, space the plants 12 to 24 inches apart. If you don’t have that kind of room, don’t worry: You can plant a single taro plant in a large pot—between 3 and 5 gallons. Make sure you place the plant about 6 inches deep in the soil. Avoid rocky soil; it may deform the corms. And keep the area free of weeds.
3. Water, water, water.
Even if you’re growing dryland taro, the plants need to be watered often, especially in dry climates. The soil should be consistently moist.
4. Feed your plant.
Use a rich organic or synthetic fertilizer, compost or compost tea. A high-potassium fertilizer works best.
5. Be patient.
Taro takes seven months to a year to reach maturity, depending on variety and growing conditions. This is when you harvest the corm.
6. Be gentle.
To harvest, lift corms gently from the soil with a garden fork. Leave the sucker plants for making huli for later planting.
7. Cold storage.
Store taro corms in the fridge. Or, you can cook, mash and freeze for defrosting later.