Tradition meets innovation at Haraguchi Rice Mill

Unfurled in an expanse of verdant velvet beneath misted prisms of sunlight, it’s difficult to gauge what year it is when visiting Hanalei’s Ho‘opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill.

Nestled in the National Wildlife Refuge and steeped in generations of farming family tradition, this nationally registered historical landmark is home to the last standing rice mill in the state.

Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama, a fifth-generation member of this farming family, remembers going to work on the tractor in this utopian setting at the ripe old age of six.

“My parents would strap a two-by-four to the pedal and put a hollow tile block on the back so it would be heavy enough to turn on,” she said. Later in life, her younger brother became the “hollow tile block.”

“He’d be wedged between the back of the tractor seat and my block, and it would put him to sleep. It was a good way to baby-sit — a good way to multitask,” she said, tongue-in-cheek.

Nakayama doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. Riding the tractor was one of her childhood highlights. Hanalei taro fields were hardly any kind of sweat shop. Though Hanalei taro itself is considered by some to be little more than a glorified potato, it resides in what is arguably one of the most poetic paradises in the world.

No longer simultaneously mowing and nanny-ing, Nakayama is now the educational coordinator and docent for the Ho‘opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill and public relations director for Hanalei Juice and Taro Co.

Nakayama remembers taking a required field trip on her own property as a fourth-grader, an anecdote she tells students, locals and tourists alike.

Cattle egret, black-crowned night heron, Koloa duck, common moorhen, ‘alae ‘ula, black-necked stilt, ae’o, Hawaiian coot, ‘alae ke‘o ke‘o, and gallinule, nene, can be seen mingling with tall California grass, great bulrush, swamp cyclosorus and honohono.

Trying to gently remind visitors that the land “isn’t a petting zoo,” Nakayama explains that the birds that populate the overwhelmingly green landscape are endangered species — and like the Hanaguchi family, they call this place home.

The Haraguchi family, which has lived here since 1921, leases this wetland, which is protected by the federal government.

Nakayama takes pride in keeping that tradition alive into the future, as she is a new mother to a 3-month-old girl.

Having a baby has meant for the Haraguchi family that the farm business has entered its sixth generation — something that has her husband Brad Nakayama thinking ahead.

“I can’t wait to get (my daughter) to work,” he said, kidding.

Visitors to the farm learn during a history lesson how the small purple Polynesian plant proved itself robust and nutrient-dense, forcing rice to take a back seat.

Kalo, the Hawaiian word for “taro,” became the lifeblood for many on the island, especially the Haraguchi family, despite the Chinese tradition of rice mills, which began in the early 1800s.

But putting a modern imprint on the age-old tradition of taro has been a challenge, and one that has fostered creativity.

The old ways meant pummeling it into poi or wrapping it around pork shoulder, but the business has thrived with innovative ways to keep taro on the table — and in local tummies.

Brad Nakayama’s mother-in-law, Karol, offers unique recipes such as buttery, coconut taro mochi. Nakayama enjoys constantly adding new twists to the standing menu, he said, which includes garlic-y taro hummus or icy, sweet and creamy Kalo Koolers, taro smoothies made of papaya, banana, guava and pineapple.

Lyndsey Nakayama is the manager of the Hanalei Juice and Taro Co. kiosk, which just launched Hawaiian plate lunches this month.

Not at all worried the new special could adversely alter his well-known, delicacy-rich menu, Nakayama said he is patient when it comes to luring in loyal patrons with food.

“We rely on word of mouth,” he said.

Mouth might be the operative word, as many that take the tour can be seen happily munching near the kiosk.

Those that take the rice mill tour get lunch from the stand with the price of admission, which is $65.

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