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Hawaii News

Shortage of taro crop expected after rain

  • COURTESY LYNDSEY HARAGUCHI-NAKAYAMA / ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Farmers on Kauai say the state should brace for a shortage of taro after record-breaking rain flooded fields in April. The deluge hit Hanalei particularly hard. The region grows most of Hawaii’s taro. Debris was piled up after flooding in Hanalei last month.

Kauai farmers say the state should brace for a shortage of taro after record-breaking rain flooded their fields.

The deluge hit the north shore community of Hanalei particularly hard. The region grows most of Hawaii’s taro, a starchy root vegetable used to make poi. The purple, glutinous dish is a traditional part of Hawaiian cuisine, sold at grocery stores and served in homes and restaurants statewide.

The state’s taro crop was valued at $2.5 million last year, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Farmers say last month’s floods smothered their taro patches with mud and silt, which turns their crop watery and spongy. They suspect they’ll suffer from dramatically reduced yields for at least a year.

The downpour also destroyed seven Kauai homes and badly damaged 65, the state said in a preliminary assessment. It triggered dozens of landslides, including more than 12 on a 2-mile stretch of the area’s main artery, a highway traveling through coastal communities.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has designated the entire island a disaster area, which makes local farmers eligible for federal assistance, including emergency loans.

Bino Fitzgerald, owner of the Hanalei Poi Co., which both farms and buys taro to make poi, expects a shortage of the crop to emerge as soon as this summer. The company sells its poi across Hawaii at stores like Costco, Safeway, Walmart and Foodland.

“So get your poi fix now,” he said.

Taro is perhaps the most important crop in Hawaiian culture. More than part of a meal, it’s a member of the family: According to legend, the taro plant and the boy who became the first human were born to the same parents. This gives taro and humans common ancestors.

Hanalei’s taro fields are a defining part of the landscape on Kauai’s north shore. They evoke a time when taro farming and fishing dominated island life, before sugar plantations diverted stream water and industrialization encouraged migration to cities.

The mid-April floods sent brown mud and water cascading into these fields.

The muck is packed with nitrogen, so it’s as though a big kick of fertilizer walloped taro patches. It’s nourishing for the taro’s stalk and leaves but makes its corm, or underground bulb, watery and spongy. The Hawaiian term for this is “loliloli.”

The perfect taro is heavy and dense and mashes into smooth poi. Loliloli taro produces lumpy poi.

Taro also can be cut into cubes and simmered in stews or sliced thin and fried to make a snack similar to potato chips.

Newly planted taro won’t be ready for harvest for another year to 14 months. Many farmers are still cleaning their fields and won’t be able to replant for months, delaying a robust harvest even further.

The floods also took out some of the irrigation systems that bring a steady flow of fresh water to Hanalei’s taro fields, many of which are part of a national wildlife refuge for endangered native water birds.

“Rivers have cut new channels to where they want to flow compared to where they had been before, feeding these old, old irrigation ditches, said Fitzgerald, whose company farms 25 acres and manages another 40 farmed by others. The Hanalei Poi Co. also buys taro from 12 area farmers.

Hanalei Valley frequently floods, but last month’s deluge was on another scale. Fitzgerald said his mother’s shop has gotten 6 inches of water in past storms. This time it got 5 feet.

The rain might enter the national record books. Preliminary data taken from a rain gauge in Waipa, next to Hanalei, indicates 49.69 inches of rain fell in the 24 hours through midday April 15. If a national panel of experts certifies this number, it will smash the existing record for a single 24-hour period of 43 inches marked in Alvin, Texas, in 1979.

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