Most Hawaiian grown taro is allocated to four major uses: Poi, table taro, taro chips, and luau leaf. Taro for poi is cultivated by both the dryland and wetland methods. Varieties commonly used are the Lehua Maoli, `Maui’ Lehua, and Moi. The Chinese Bun Long is used as table taro, luau (taro leaf), and taro chips. Dasheen or araimo, Japanese taro, also is used as a table taro. The Samoan Niue is primarily used as a table taro.
Like other farming, taro cultivation is demanding and the financial return can be low at times. Farmers work bent over in knee deep water and mud, from sun up to sun down. Areas suitable for taro cultivation are often far from conveniences such as decent roads, schools, hospitals, and shopping. Yet the number of people interested in raising taro is slowly rising. In 1990, the Big Island had 86 commercial taro farms. In 1994 there were 105.
A lot of Hawaiian culture is based on taro cultivation, for example, you cannot fight when the bowl of poi is open. By ancient Hawaiian custom, it is considered disrespectful to fight in front of an elder. One should not raise the voice, speak angrily, or make rude comments or gestures. How is this connected to an open poi bowl? Because Hāloa (Taro) is the elder brother of humans.
The ancient Hawaiians identified so strongly with taro that the Hawaiian term for family, `ohana, is derived from the word `oha, the shoot or sucker which grows from the taro corm. As the young shoots grow from the corm, people grow from the family.
While varieties of taro grow in almost all tropical regions of the world, Hawai`i seems to have some of the strongest taro traditions. According to Native Planters in Hawaii, by Handy and Handy, taro “. . . is a plant of unique and distinctive character which was brought by planters to a higher state of cultivation in old Hawaii than anywhere else in the world. . . . Native cultivation of taro in Hawaii had created a greater number of varieties adaptable to varying conditions of locale, soil, and water than are to be found anywhere else in Polynesia or, we believe, in the world.”
Varieties of taro available today are much different than in ancient times. Many of the ancient varieties have disappeared through lack of cultivation, and immigrants and commercial cultivators have brought new varieties.
The problems of taro farmers also have changed. In ancient times, drought, hurricane and warfare were the major calamities farmers faced.
Today, introduced diseases, loss of arable land due to various kinds of development, water rights, pollution, and the world economy all must be factored into the farmer’s business plan.
But also, as the world has changed, farmers are changing their ways of dealing with it. They are banding together in associations to share knowledge and other resources. As more is learned about taro, ways to combat diseases should be found. Already, much research has been done in tissue culture for taro, providing disease free plants.
Over the years, people from around the world have come to Hawai`i, and some have become taro farmers. Some, like the Chinese and Japanese, have brought their own varieties and cultivated them.
Others began to cultivate the Hawaiian and introduced varieties already here. Taro varieties and knowledge were traded and contributed to modern Hawaii’s famous blending of cultures, helping to make all of Hawai`i one `ohana.
Useful Kalo (Taro) Resources:
Books on Kalo: