No Mo’ Poi?

Scientists are working on a new hybrid taro plant resistant to leaf blight, which could make poi shortages a thing of the past

Wednesday - March 17, 2005
By Phil Hayworth
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As spring graduation parties, weddings and picnics bring families together around the traditional foods of Hawaii, poi — that most essential of Hawaiian foods — is almost always in short supply.

But scientific breakthroughs and creative marketing could soon make the notorious annual “poi shortage” a thing of the past.

“We’re in the advanced stages of developing a leaf-blight resistant hybrid plant that we think can yield 30 percent more harvest,” says Roy Yamakawa, a University of Hawaii agricultural extension agent on Kauai, where close to 70 percent of Hawaii’s taro is grown.

That’s good news, because it takes 14 months for taro to grow and come to market. By then, it’s been menaced by everything from pocket rot to insatiable apple snails to leaf blight. The terrible trio can wipe out whole acreages.

Hybridized taro has caught the imagination of HPC Foods, the largest producer of poi on Oahu and developers of the ultra-creative “Taro Brand” line of products such as taro flour, taro bread, pancake mixes, taro rolls and taro mochi. Today, HPC Foods is working with Grove Farm Company on Kauai on a model farm project in Koloa to grow taro on land formerly used for sugarcane. So after nearly 50 years of consistent decline, taro production could soon gain ground in Hawaii.

Ironically, even if supplies increase, “the existing poi market will most likely not be able to use all of the additional taro,” says Eric Enomoto, treasurer for HPC Foods.

For this reason, HPC is looking for alternate uses of taro and working on both taro supply and demand. Ever try a poi smoothie? Or taro bread? Or even taro pie? HPC Foods, along with other farmers and millers around the state, are experimenting with creative ways to appeal to the modern palate.

Fifty years ago, there were 14 million pounds of taro grown here on thousands of acres. Those were the good old days when poi cost 13 cents a pound at the market — or off the poi truck that cruised local neighborhoods back then. Today, poi is $3.50 a pound at the market — too much for most folks here who have become accustomed to other, far cheaper staples like rice or potatoes.

Last year, 420 acres produced only 5 million pounds, of which nearly 3.3 million

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