Roots run deep, but future uncertain

The sight of Hanalei Valley without the presence of taro would represent a dramatic shift in the agricultural, social, economic and panoramic landscape of the area.

It could happen.

Even armed with federal funding for development and marketing of value-added taro products, Karol and Rodney Haraguchi of W.T. Haraguchi Farm, Inc. in Hanalei Valley, see the industry at a crossroads.

“It was a critical point for us” to see if the industry will survive, Karol Haraguchi said.

The whole taro industry is declining because existing farmers aren’t getting any younger, and many of those in the next generation of potential taro farmers, some of them finding the physical work too difficult for their liking, are opting for other jobs and professions, she said.

Karol and Rodney Haraguchi are thankful for the federal grant that should help allow them to continue with their passion and profession that is taro farming, they said.

Without the federal funding, the chance to explore the value-added opportunities might not have been possible, Karol Haraguchi said.

“We’re really grateful and appreciative of getting this grant. Farmers don’t have the resources and cash in reserve to take commodities to the next level, from farm to retail,” she said.

“It’s risky on our part to see if this will work,” and the federal grant “gives us a boost to see it through, to see if it will work. And it will provide the means to ensure the viability of the farm for our children and the future generations of taro farmers,” Karol Haraguchi said.

Other concerns exist that Rodney Haraguchi says aren’t getting the attention of state leaders, such as the coqui frog problem.

“The taro farmers also need support in solving the (problem of the) worst invasive species, the apple snail, that continues to ravage the fields with no remedy in sight,” Rodney Haraguchi said.

“For our farm, the only remedy is the high cost of manually picking up the snails, since there is no approved means to get rid of the mollusk.”

Rodney and Karol Haraguchi are among individuals in seven groups of farmers in Hawai’i who won Rural Economic Transition Assistance Hawaii Program (RETAH-II) grants.

They received a share of nearly $1.7 million under the innovative program that is a brainchild of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai’i, as a partnership involving representatives of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Hawai’i-based, private-sector management, according to a press release from the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii (EDAH).

The program is operated by leaders of the EDAH, which is a statewide umbrella organization for the four private, non-profit economic development boards, including the Kauai Economic Development Board in Lihu’e.

EDAH board members issued their first annual “EDAH gift basket” during the holidays as a sample of Hawai’i’s bounty.

Program Oversight Committee Chair Monty Richards said, “These are the first fruits of the new Rural Economic Transition Assistance Hawaii Program (RETAH-II), and represent almost 100 years in the agricultural industry by the participants.”

The program is now in its second phase, with seven projects on five islands.

Others are growing tomatoes, bananas and macadamia nuts on the Big Island, harvesting sea salt and growing sweet potatoes on Moloka’i, growing organic coffee in Lahaina on Maui, and manufacturing kukui- and macadamia-nut oils in Waialua on O’ahu.

The RETAH-II program is also in its second funding round, and board members recently reviewed 57 new concepts, they said.

Those with acceptable full proposals have now been invited for the review and selection process for 2006. The second round of funding will be announced (pending federal confirmation) in April, Richards said.

This RETAH-II program was developed from an earlier program which provided support to statewide agricultural-diversification efforts following sugar-plantation shutdowns in the early 1990s, he explained.

The original program leaders eventually managed more than $20 million for 98 separate projects benefiting some 1,500 employees and entrepreneurs on 14,000 acres of former sugar lands.

Of the original projects, approximately 80 percent are still in operation.

“Nobody’s a millionaire, but we’ve done some good, and kept the land in local hands, and diversified our agricultural operations,” Richards said.

Members of the Oversight Committee include Richards of Kahua Ranch on the Big Island, Bert Hatton of the Estate of James Campbell, Stephanie Saito of Bank of Hawaii, Anahola’s Robin Danner of the Native Hawaiian Advisory Council and Kelvin Taketa of the Hawai’i Community Foundation.

Program management is provided by Program Director Susan Matsushima, and the EDAH chief executive officer is Paula Helfrich.

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