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Geo-Joint: Hawaiian Taro Rises Again

Posted on May 15 2018

Hawai’i, home of poi, and formerly a big source of sugar.

A while back, the Geo-Joint looked at the end of the sugar industry in Hawai’i. Though sugar cane had been carried to the islands on canoes with the earliest settlers, it wasn’t a major crop until the arrival of European and American businessmen. They brought the concept of capital-A agriculture, as opposed to subsistence farming. In their eyes, Hawai’i was a sugar machine just waiting to be fired up. By fair means and foul, they obtained vast acreages upon which to plant sugar cane and build industrial-sized processing plants. There was a world beyond Hawai’i’s shores that had an insatiable sweet tooth, and money was to be made by supplying it. The climate delivered rain and copious sunshine, and the necessary labor for cane field work was at first locally supplied and later imported. All this brought huge changes to Hawaii’s economy and ethnic makeup, but the rise of sugar had another effect that was less visible.

Pounding taro on a poi board, a tradition that continues today.

Every culture has its bedrock food. These staples are ubiquitous on the tables of the people. For most Europeans, it’s the wheat in bread. In the Far East, rice. In many Latin cultures, corn in the form of tortillas is as basic to a meal as salt. Many other tropical cultures in parts of Africa and around the world depend on taro, and it was taro root that the first Hawaiians brought with them. Both the leaves and the root of taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, are edible, but the cooked, pounded, and fermented root made poi: the soul food of Hawaiians. Poi has a light purple color, a sticky, thick consistency (although it can be made thinner) and a somewhat bland, starchy flavor, with a certain tang. It doesn’t appeal to everyone’s palate, but for centuries it was the sustaining food of the islands. Packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants, it was a superfood long before anyone thought of such things.

A bowl of poi—a cultural standby full of purple nutrition!

The cut ends of these taro roots, or corms, show the purple veins that give poi its color.

Taro likes to soak its roots in very wet soil.

The root grows in saturated, indeed, flooded soil—a taro field looks like a rice paddy, and there were large acreages of it. Traditionally, Hawaiian land was considered to be owned by the gods, but managed by a hierarchy of chiefs and agents who made arrangements with the commoners to work the land in exchange for tribute. Large land divisions on an island were called moku, and were defined by watercourses or ridges. The moku were subdivided and assigned to chiefs in long, narrow parcels, called ahupua’a, that ran from the highlands to the coastline. Each of these parcels, then, had the full range of topographical variety to work with for farming, hunting, or fishing. Smaller divisions of these ahupua’a went to individual farmers and fishermen. But the coming of Big Sugar changed the arrangement of landholding and took a toll on both the water supply, and the Hawaiian diet.

While rainfall is plentiful in the islands, sugarcane required a lot of it. The 250 gallons needed to produce a pound of sugar meant that extra water was wanted, and the engineering minds of the new agricultural barons diverted it from the free-flowing streams coming down from the mountains. Streamflow diminished to the family taro fields, and their crops went dry, while the cane fields were fully irrigated. Poor farmers had little voice against the wealthy sugar interests, and poi production waned. It was symbolic of what happened to all the aspects of Hawaiian culture. Christianity brought to the islands by missionaries taught that the people must cover their bodies, abandon some of their social customs, and develop a Western work ethic. Even surfing was frowned upon. Nothing productive in that! Over time, all of Hawaiian culture suffered, from the language, to the dance, to the food on the table. For more than a century and a half, sugar was big business in Hawai’i, and though its heyday was back in the 1930s, its control of water rights still affects Hawaiian agriculture.

Maui sugar cane fields pre-2016—last of an era.

Rising labor and shipping costs made island sugar less profitable, and it dwindled to very little production by the end of the 20th century. As an added incentive to abandon cane, the value of the farmland that could be used for resort development grew astronomically. The sugar industry blinked out in 2016 on Maui, the last island to have such operations. It was the end of a fairly long-standing island tradition, but it re-opened the door to a much older one. Hawaiian cultural pride has undergone a resurgence in recent decades, and with cane plantations no longer needing to suck streams dry to produce sugar, small farmers began to demand their water rights back. Teams of environmental lawyers helped them to sue landholding companies, some of whom were hoarding water and even dumping it down dry channels and out to sea. With regained water rights, small-scale taro farming is expanding.

Production of taro is growing, and while it will never equal sugar’s volume or popularity, it is a key component in the maintenance and rebuilding of island culture. It is telling that two words naming parts of the taro plant have more than one meaning. The leaves are called “lu’au,” a word even mainlanders know as a Hawaiian communal feast. And the little offshoot sprouts that develop along the main root of the taro plant, and can themselves be replanted, are called “’oha.” ‘Oha is the basis for the word ‘ohana, which means family. The increase of taro farming and the poi made from it mean more than a new wave of foodie faddism. They signal the strengthening of human connection in a centuries-old culture that was nearly worn away by invaders, but kept its roots in the watery ground.

(apologies for some incomplete diacritics on the Hawaiian words used here—they don’t transition reliably to the computer systems of all recipients)

Does all this talk of poi have you thinking of going to a lu’au on a vacation to the islands? Whet your appetite with a gorgeous wall map of Hawai’i by National Geographic, available from




 caption: Maui sugar cane fields pre-2016—last of an era.

source: Flickr: Justin Ennis (CC by 2.0)

caption: Taro likes to soak its roots in very wet soil.

source: Wikimedia Commons: Forest and Kim Starr (CC by 2.0)

caption: The cut ends of these taro roots, or corms, show the purple veins that give poi its color.

source: Wikimedia Commons: David Monniaux (CC by SA 3.0)

caption: Pounding taro on a poi board, a tradition that continues today.

source: Wikimedia Commons: Miami University Library (Public domain)

caption: A bowl of poi—a cultural standby full of purple nutrition!

source: Wikimedia Commons: Bshams (Public domain)





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