Makaweli Poi facing last days

WAIMEA — A “change of operations” is the term used to describe what will happen at the Makaweli Poi Mill next week, said Bryna Storch, operations manager at the mill.

The term arrived in an inter-office memo advising Storch the last poi production for the mill in Waimea will be on May 23 and the final day of the mill will be May 24.

“Everyone is going to be laid off, including myself,” Storch said. “There are 15 workers at MPM who produce about a thousand pounds of poi weekly. Some of them have been with the mill since it opened in 1993.”

Upper Makaweli Valley taro farmer John A‘ana, who co-owned the mill with his cousin, Rawlins Char, said the timing to close the mill is terrible.

“We’re just at the start of the busy season,” said A‘ana, who learned the craft of taro farming from his uncle, Barney Char. “People are going to be inconvenienced because of all the graduation parties, holidays, and the taro coming in. To shut now is a real shame.”

A‘ana said the Office of Hawaiian Affairs bought the mill in 2008 after a lot of the farmers who farmed taro passed on and had no successors.

“At one time, there were more than 12 farmers growing taro to supply the mill,” A‘ana said. “Now, it’s down to five or six farmers.”

Operating under the Hi‘ipoi LLC subsidiary of OHA, the primary goal of the acquisition was to increase the production of taro in the West Kaua‘i area to feed the mill.

“But we never got off the ground,” A‘ana said. “After OHA acquired the mill, there were two major rain storms which created a lot of damage in 2008.”

Following a recovery period which covered 2009, the program was “pulled” just when it was getting ready to go in 2010, A‘ana said.

“This is going to be the first time the Westside will be without poi,” A‘ana said. “Makaweli Poi Mill came about in 1993 after Hurricane Iniki damaged the Waimea Poi Mill which was owned and operated by several generations of the Yokotake family.”

Storch said the closing of the Makaweli Poi Mill will have an impact on the community as well as on the 15 employees who will lose their jobs.

“Any time there is a loss of jobs on Kaua‘i, the county’s Office of Economic Development is very concerned, especially when it involves an industry which provides 80 percent of Hawai‘i’s taro for poi, and further erodes our Hawaiian culture and agriculture industry,” OED Director George Costa said. “The Office of Economic Development, in partnership with the Kaua‘i County Farm Bureau, recently launched the branding and marketing program ‘Kaua‘i Grown’ to promote local farmers and ranchers and help our island community to become sustainable and less dependent on imported foods. We have been working with Makaweli Poi for several months and are planning to add them to our list of companies that we promote.”

Costa said OED would be interested in meeting with OHA to review the challenges of taro farming in West Kaua‘i and the difficulties they encountered in the recruitment and training of young taro farmers which were to have helped increase production numbers.

Storch said Makaweli Poi supplies commercial caterers, bakers and retailers from Waimea through Kapa‘a.

“There is one baker who says 15 percent of their product is poi-dependent because of orders for taro rolls and other poi-related product,” Storch said. “Then there are the caterers and food places like Scotty’s Bar B Que, Lu‘au Kalamaku‘u at Gaylord’s, Da Kine Food and Fish Express who move a lot of our poi.”

Ray Ishihara of Ishihara Market in Waimea, located literally just around the corner from the mill, said he sells Makaweli Poi alongside the Taro Brand (from O‘ahu) and Hanalei Poi.

“It’s a shame to lose one of the Waimea businesses who has been here a long time and has products which customers come in to buy,” Ishihara said. “The customers will have to adjust to the other brands.”

The statement might be easier said than done because Storch said Makaweli Poi Mill produces a traditional style of poi which is thicker than other brands because of the way they process the taro.

“The problem is and started with raw product to turn into poi,” A‘ana said, Storch equating the situation to trying to sell empty pizza boxes. “It’s not that we want to be subsidized, or live on grants. We want to be self sufficient, but the farmers need help in a lot of areas and it takes a lot of dedicated effort to get the mill to where it can be self sufficient.”

Among the major goals of Hi‘ipoi when OHA acquired the mill were to preserve and promote the cultural and historical tradition of taro farming and poi production in a sustainable and economically viable manner and to serve as an educational resource for youth; the restore the Makaweli valley as a major taro producing area and to stimulate the economic development of the West Kaua‘i community by providing a market for taro and employment opportunities for low-income people in the community, the Hi‘ipoi website states.

“They said it was a financial decision to close the mill,” A‘ana said. “But they never even took the first step on the mission statement.”

Waimea (and West Kaua‘i) is an ideal place to grow taro, A‘ana said.

“We have sun and we have water,” the Makaweli valley farmer said. “We don’t have apple snails and the other problems which are affecting the North Shore farmers.”

A‘ana said when Storch, who describes herself as a Makaweli Poi eater of four years, was hired in January 2012, her understanding was to find a community group to take over the Makaweli Poi Mill operation by the end of the year.

“To give us just two weeks to accomplish this is impossible,” A‘ana said. “We could try, but what can you do in just two weeks.”

To this end, there has been a lot of activity on Facebook where Makaweli Poi Mill supporters and fans have initiated a petition on the social media site.

“There is a Makaweli Poi site, another site to Save Makaweli Poi and the site where people can see the petition,” Storch said.

The timing of the announcement also coincides with OHA hosting a community forum Wednesday night starting at 6:30 p.m. at the King Kaumuali‘i Elementary School cafeteria in Hanama‘ulu followed by an OHA Trustees’ Board Meeting Thursday at 9 a.m. at the Lihu‘e Neighborhood Center.

“The Makaweli Poi Mill will be on the agenda for the Wednesday meeting,” Storch said. “I checked with the OHA office and was told it was on the agenda. People can comment on the incident at this input forum because it is open to the public.”

Visit www.hiipoi.org for more information.

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or dfujimoto@ thegardenisland.com.

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