Summer poi shortage just one taro-industry problem

Even before last week’s flooding blocked Kuhio Highway at the Hanalei bridge, Bino Fitzgerald was predicting a poi shortage this summer.

A variety of pests including pocket rot (a disease that forms pockets of rotting tissue in the corm), leaf blight exacerbated by the recent rains, the ever-present apple snails and the rain itself (which slows crop development) continue laying siege to the state’s most prolific taro fields.

Fitzgerald, who grows taro and is owner and operator of Hanalei Poi Company, has been forced by these and other circumstances to quit offering poi over the Internet — it had been 10 percent of Hanalei Poi’s sales — and turn away many individual orders in order to ensure a steady supply of poi to his bread-and-butter customers like Big Save and Wal-Mart, he said.

That means there likely won’t be poi at those summer wedding receptions, graduation parties and other events that make the months from March to August peak-poi months, he said.

As taro is a 12-to-14-month crop, what farmers have in the ground now, minus whatever is lost to the attackers including any more wet weather, is what Fitzgerald will see in his mill.

His strategy has been to refrain from taking on any new big accounts and adopt a new strategy: marketing poi as a niche, gourmet product, where the focus is on quality rather than quantity as opposed to commodity crops like rice and potatoes.

“We’ve got to take care of our local people and local markets,” he said.

Several factors have led to the current shortage situation, including an aging farmer pool, younger people finding it easier and more lucrative to work in the construction or visitor industries, price increases for fuel, fertilizer, plastics and other needs, a decrease in numbers of farmers and acreage in crops, and an increase in demand as families who love poi have grown, he explained.

“We’re driving out farmers from agriculture,” said Fitzgerald, pleading for legislative or other intervention not only to preserve irrigation systems which are every farmer’s lifeblood, but also to preserve prime agricultural lands, especially those where wetland agriculture is taking place.

He doesn’t want to see taro go the way of the pineapple and sugar industries, he said.

Is the taro industry in jeopardy? No, he says, “but we are at a pivotal point.”

There has been a decline in the number of poi mills, with Hanalei Poi being the only poi mill in Hanalei certified by the state Department of Health.

Since Hanalei Poi has been in business, Fitzgerald has seen six taro farmers give up, he said.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kaua’i taro made up more than 72 percent of the state’s taro production last year, and Fitzgerald estimates that between half and two-thirds of all the island’s taro comes from Hanalei Valley.

Fitzgerald’s family grows taro on 26 acres behind the poi mill, and he is working hard to clean up another 39 acres around the mill for future production.

What about his own succession plans? Little do they know it, but the twin boys his wife is about to deliver may well be the key to the future of the taro industry in Hanalei Valley, he says with a laugh.

Another factor affecting taro farmers and other farmers, a factor that has moved some people out of agriculture, is high real-property taxes, he said.

Some people feel they can’t afford to have high-taxed land in low-income farming, and have opted to place homes instead of crops on their properties, he said.

All of these effects are compounding and changing the feel of the community, and changing the minds of the next generation of potential farmers, he said.

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