Explore Maui

Meet a Maui Taro Farmer

Bobby Pahia toils the fields to cultivate a Hawaii Staple

‘A‘ohe ‘*ina‘I komo ‘ole o ka ai. There is no meat that doesn’t taste good with poi.

-Hawaiian Proverb

Dressed in camouflage cargo pants and a grey T-shirt, Bobby Pahia’s hands are stained with soil from harvesting kalo or taro in English. For the past 30 years, the Maui farmer has been gently pulling the thick stalk at his Hoaloha Farms, selling the round hefty edible corm for a bargain $2 per pound.

“Why do we sell kalo at $2 a pound?” Pahia rhetorically asks. “Because my whole mission is to get taro and poi back on people’s tables. Right now today, it’s a luxury item. We don’t get to eat it unless it’s a special occasion like a lūʻau or party. But before it was always found on everyone’s kitchen table. Everyone had a big bowl of poi.”

In Hawai‘i, there are several foods that all visitors should try. One is poi, the pale purple paste that is the result of pounding the root of the taro. A root vegetable, taro is often seen in large paddies, with sturdy stems standing two to three feet and supporting large, heart-shaped leaves. It’s what covers about 80 acres of Pahia’s 31-acre farm, which is set against the verdant West Maui Mountains. Every part of the taro plant has a use: the root is pounded into poi; leaves are wrapped around pork, fish or chicken and steamed to make a flavorful dish called lau lau; stems are used to flavor stews. Entire civilizations throughout the Pacific thrived on this food source, which is said to be one of the earliest cultivated plants in history.

The lo'í or irrigated terrace is the vast paddy that feeds and nurtures taro. (©Isaac Arjonilla)

One cannot overstate the importance of taro in Native Hawaiian culture and mo‘olelo (oral histories). The legend of Hāloa is the story of the very first Native Hawaiian, who was born from a kalo or taro root. Thought to have birthed a stillborn, Wākea (Sky Father) and the Daughter of Mother Earth, Ho‘ohōkūlani, buried their premature son, Hāloanakalaukapalili (quivering long stalk) in a spot that Ho‘ohōkūlani could tend to each day. She kept the area clean and free of all weeds and animals, and stirred the mud as if she were tucking Hāloanakalaukapalili in to sleep. As her tears watered the burial sight, a green leaf poked through and slowly grew into a handsome kalo plant. Delighted by their new blessing, Ho‘ohōkūlani birthed another son and, in honor of their firstborn, named him Hāloa, who was strong and healthy. Wākea and Ho‘ohōkūlani told Hāloa that, unlike the normal duties of a younger brother, he needed to take care and watch over his older brother. Hāloa obeyed and tended to Hāloanakalaukapalili and the kalo soon began to grow in abundance. By his hands, the land became fertile and rich in medicinal leaves and nutritious kalo. Hāloa would then go on to forever care for his older brother and the land that provided for him.

Like the story of Hāloa, Native Hawaiian history is richly embedded in its soil. Respect for the ‘āina (land) came first before any decisions were made within the ahupua‘a (land divisions). The connection to nature and the fruits of its labor were considered honors, not expectations.

“Another one of my missions is to build biology back in the soil,” says Pahia, who  moved to Maui in 1986 to work for the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “We want to make the taro industry sustainable and affordable.”

Bobby Pahia pulls the thick kalo stalk with its round hefty edible corm. (©Isaac Arjonilla)

Poi can be an acquired taste—it is bland, and some don’t appreciate its texture. Even food-fearless Andrew Zimmern, star of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” didn’t care for poi. Learning to love the flavor, though, pays off. Pahia attests that it’s “one of the healthiest foods you can eat on the planet.” Dr. Terry Shintani, author of the hit nutrition book “Eat More, Weigh Less,” concurs. He extols the many wonderful qualities of poi as a natural, whole food. In fact, he has made poi a centerpiece of a program to help native Hawaiians and others overcome obesity, diabetes and heart disease by returning to traditional Hawaiian foods.

There are countless examples of poi saving the dietary day: Babies allergic to milk, for instance, can often take poi quite well. They can be fed diluted poi at a very young age, and it’s said to help them to sleep soundly through the night. Poi is also used by outrigger canoe paddlers to carbo-load, Hawaiian-style, before a long-distance race.

Dr. Shintani studied the effects of eating a poi-rich ancient Hawaiian diet. The subjects swapped bread, pasta, and potatoes, all starches, for poi and sweet potatoes. Cholesterol levels dropped by 14.1 percent and, on average, 17 pounds were shed. These are compelling findings. Poi’s health benefits begin with its low glycemic (sugar in the blood) index. High glycemic foods are linked to all sorts of ailments, the most common being diabetes and obesity.

The taro's round hefty edible corm is the main source for poi, a favorite starch among island residents. (©Isaac Arjonilla)

Foods like poi, with only one percent fat, lots of fiber and very little sugar into the blood, allow you to fill your belly but not overdose on sugar.

 “What’s really good,” continues Shintani, “is that they don’t process things out of it. The whole taro root is there.” Indeed, poi meshes nicely with the initiative to eat food that’s not overly processed. Increasingly, people are opting out of eating products that are too many steps away from nature. We’re jettisoning those foods that make us overweight, sap our energy and simply don’t make sense. Most agree that the desire to go back to a healthier way of eating is a good thing, but it’s not always easy to find simple, natural foods beyond the fresh produce aisle.

Pahia is hoping to change all that. “My wife, son and brother all grow kalo,” he says. “We want to make poi commonplace. Anyone can grow it.”