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Kauaʻi taro farmers champion measure that could change water lease process across Hawaiʻi

Taro farming in Hawaiʻi is an ancient Native Hawaiian tradition with modern-day challenges from invasive species to predators, loss of land and loss of water.

In Waiʻoli Valley on Kauaʻi’s north shore, one group of taro farmers is pushing for legislation that could be a game changer for taro farmers across the islands.

On any given day, you’ll find 86-year-old Clarence Kaona, also known as Uncle Shorty, in his family’s taro patch in Waiʻoli.

“Every day got something to do,” says Kaona. “If it’s not picking grass in the taro patch, you gotta take care of the banks or get ready to plant your next patch.”

He’s been farming taro on Kauaʻi’s north shore since he was 6 years old. He took over his father David Kaona’s taro patch in Waiʻoli in 1985.

“Waiʻoli taro farm is one of the best places in the world to work. The farmers are really nice and the taro is tremendously good,” says Kaona.

Waiʻoli Valley is one of the few places in Hawaiʻi that hasn’t been impacted by plantation water diversions. That’s a rarity according to UH law professor and Kalihiwai native Kapua Sproat, who says 90% of all of the streams in Hawaiʻi had at least one diversion or another.

“And so here is one of the few places that have survived that. Research by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has documented this exact system to the 15th century. So this is a really ancient system with farmers here having three to five generations stewarding this important place,” says Sproat. “And yet, even here in this incredible kipuka, there's still tremendous legal challenges in order to maintain this important cultural practice.”

After the 2018 flood, Waiʻoli taro farmers learned the centuries-old irrigation system that feeds their taro patches was actually on state land and subject to the state’s water lease process.

Sproat and her law students spent thousands of hours trying to meet all the lease requirements, including right of entry permits, streamflow standards, environmental assessments and more.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Third-generation taro farmer Chris Kobayashi

“All the steps and we’re still not pau. If we had to do all of those things, we wouldn’t be able to farm and feed people,” says third-generation taro farmer Chris Kobayashi, whose family has been farming taro in Waiʻoli for over a century. “If we want to encourage our younger people to farm, we cannot make it too hard or too burdensome because they gotta get right in there, get in the mud and get to work.”

House Bill 1768 would give traditional taro farmers like those from Waiʻoli an exemption to the state water lease process. For Uncle Shorty’s daughter JoAnne Kaona, one of the younger taro farmers in Waiʻoli, this bill would not only perpetuate the tradition but feed her community.

“At Waipā (Foundation) we actually produce kalo from Waiʻoli into poi and it gets distributed throughout the island at probably the cheapest rate around,” says Kaona. “So it keeps poi on the table”

And none of this would be possible without the irrigation system that generations of Waiʻoli taro farmers have helped to maintain. They’re just looking for a little help from the state.

HB 1768 will be heard Wednesday before the Senate Committees on Water and Land and Agriculture and Environment at 1:50 p.m. in Conference Room 224. The hearing will be streaming live on the Senate’s YouTube channel.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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