Aloha mai, For over 25 years my family and I have been blessed to live and farm in Waipi’o Valley, a beautiful valley on the northeast coast of Hawai’i Island. Waipi’o, considered one of the cradles of Hawaiian civilization and culture, has a long and storied past that dates back well over 1500 years and is still deeply rooted in agriculture. We also operate a family run poi shop where we process the taro we grow on our 8 acre farm, as well as taro we buy from other farmers, providing poi for our Big Island community. Taro or Kalo, is a starchy tuber that is at the very roots of Hawaiian culture, some ancient creation stories consider Kalo to be the older sibling to man. Being raised in suburban Honolulu, when I first went to Waipi’o almost 25 years ago, I wasn’t a farmer. In fact, I had never even stepped foot in a taro lo’i (wet-land taro patch) before. So in an effort to connect to the roots of our newly adopted home, we pursued an opportunity to open up some abandoned lo’i, followed in the footsteps of our Waipi’o kupuna (elders), and became taro farmers.
We received a tremendous amount of encouragement and support as we opened up our farm. People were there to lead by example and teach us the skills necessary to succeed in our newly chosen life. Uncle Suei Kawashima, Uncle Olu and Auntie Linda Eskaran, Jason and Alberta Mock Chew, Kia Fronda, the Mendez boys, Lloyd and Moana Kaneshiro, Uncle Ted Kaaekuahiwi, Uncle Roy and Auntie Gladys Toko; the list is long of those who so willingly shared with us. Of course, I am so proud of my family; my wife Gretchen and our kids Jes, Lia and Kaua who have worked so hard to take care of the farm and grow taro.
Similarly, when we decided to expand our farm and put together a commercial poi shop to add value to the crops we grow, we had a lot of support. We were able to access the Honoka’a Ohana Kitchen, a community incubator kitchen where we had the facilities and equipment to start our business, as well as training in the entrepreneurial and business skills necessary to succeed. To learn the art of making poi in the traditional Waipi’o style, we went to the source, to the experts, to learn. It was Poi Making 101 with the Mock Chew ohana (family), commercial poi processors in Waipi’o for 5 generations, and the current purveyors of Moku Wai Piko Poi..
I’ll never forget the first time I learned how to properly kupele or mix the poi. Uncle Sam Mock Chew, in his late 70’s was my teacher. Now, anyone who has ever worked with large amounts of poi knows that it is a tricky endeavor to work with the gooey, sticky mass of carbohydrates. As I went to work with the 70 pound bucket of poi in front of me, I was soon up to my elbows, sweating profusely, poi sticking everywhere as I labored to properly mix the poi. I glanced over at Uncle Sam who was working calmly next to me and noticed that not a speck of poi was out of place as he effortlessly worked the poi. As I observed his measured movements, I was aware that he was truly a master of his craft, making it look easy. When I looked over at him, he glanced up at me, and as our eyes met he must have thought it was funny, because I could hear his soft chuckle and see the laughter in his eyes. But now, 19 years later, every week when we make poi I think of Uncle Sam and people like Papa Joe Batalona, Uncle Jackie Kaholoa’a, Uncle Kimo Nakanelua and all the many others who through their unselfish acts of aloha shared with and supported my family as we strove to learn. That is why we treat what we are doing as such an important kuleana (responsibility), because the poi we make represents the accumulated knowledge and abundance that has emanated from Waipi’o for many many generations.
When we talk about food, it all boils down to relationships. These relationships must be positive because the food is meant to nourish. Any chef will tell you that the magic ingredient in making really ono (delicious) food is love. The beautiful Hawaiian proverb, “Ono kahi ao lu’au, me ke aloha pu”, reminds us that even a little taro greens are delicious when love is present. From the caring, dedicated hands that tend the land and grow the crops, to the meticulous attention to detail of those preparing the dish, to the pleasing presentation and pleasant company when the food is consumed, it is all about the love that goes into providing the food that makes it truly delicious and nourishing. That is why, even though it is such hard work, we choose to continue to farm, process poi and provide food for our community. It is the most honorable way we know to spend our time. While our efforts are what support us financially, the real benefits we receive are the close, loving relationships we have nurtured with everyone who is a part of the process of providing poi on a weekly basis, it is a labor of love that requires many hands. We have established long term, mutually appreciative relationships with our many customers, who over the years have become like ohana. Being exposed to and relying on the elements has been a humbling and spiritual experience. Growing taro and providing poi for our community has bonded us to Waipi’o and taught us lessons that money could never buy.
While we have long term leases on 7 of the acres we have been farming for over 20 years, the critical bottom acre, which contains the only drivable access to our farm is unexpectantly going up for sale, and we need $10,000 to secure the land. This land is an important piece in our production rotation that supplies the taro we process into poi. In addition to the farm production, we provide educational opportunities to many younger members in our community and ohana, sharing the knowledge that was passed on to us in the hope of keeping farming strong and vibrant and an option for those seeking to remain home and make a living. While I don’t always encourage small scale farmers to go into debt, losing access to this land is simply not an option and this awesome program will fit into our business model and enable my family and I to stay on the land. Our family has such a strong attachment to this land, cultivated over many years, so on many levels we truly appreciate this support.