Winning taros not huge, but size isn’t root of the matter

Winners of the Queen’s Challenge taro-growing contest did not have to forklift their entries to the East Maui Taro Festival earlier this month like farmers at pumpkin-growing contests on the Mainland at Halloween.

Still, the 9.077-pound wetland lehua maoli variety kalo, or taro, was pretty good size. The corm grown by Jahzyah Cabanilla-Ka’auamo of Keanae, which also was 14.5 inches long and 21.25 inches in circumference, was declared the winner in the wetland division. (The actual growers were the babe’s parents, Dustin Cabanilla and Kainani Ka’auamo).

Size alone did not win the prize for Jahzyah in this contest. Quality mattered too. The entry had to pass the water-dunking test, have the right shape and ripeness and not show disease or pest damage, said Penny Levin, board member of the Taro Security and Purity Task Force, the sponsor of the contest.

In the dryland category, Seth Raabe of Kipahulu won with a 5.058-pound, 10.5-inch long and 17-inch circumference piko ‘ula’ula variety entry.

Winners received a $500 cash prize and a copy of Queen Emma’s writings on kalo.

The kalo-growing contest was the second sponsored by the task force, formed by the Legislature in 2008 in the aftermath of the controversy over genetically modified kalo and patents, and was the first held on Maui. Last year, the first Queen’s Challenge was held at the Haleiwa Taro Festival on Oahu and next year will move to Kauai, said Levin.

Queen Emma Kalanikaumakaamano Kaleleonalani Na’ea Rooke, for whom the contest was named, was the wife of King Kamehameha IV, Alexander Liholiho. The founder of what is now The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu had a green thumb for growing kalo.

“Queen Emma . . . grew taro of great size using traditional Hawaiian cultivation methods,” said Levin, whose task force is looking for solutions to problems facing kalo growers, including disease, cost, marketing and obtaining huli.

In an unpublished manuscript titled “Observations on Varieties and Culture of Taro” in the Bishop Museum’s archives, the queen detailed her planting methods, her favored varieties and her harvesting practices.

“The size of the roots depend upon the depth of loose soil, and the care bestowed on its cultivation,” the queen wrote. “I have produced kalo which averaged 22 inches in length and the same in circumference when it was cultivated under my own eye, but far less in the same locality when the cultivation was somewhat neglected by my konohiki.”

Jahzyah’s 9-pound kalo was big for its variety, which normally averages between 3 and 5 pounds, said Levin. And it wasn’t just big, the kalo was of good quality.

One of the quality tests involved dropping the corm into a bucket of water. Good kalo sinks to the bottom, signaling density and lots of starch, Levin said. If the corm floats, it’s watery and not starchy.

“You want a sticky starch,” she said. “It makes a beautiful sticky poi.”

The contest attracted only five taro growers.

“People feel shy,” she said. “They think it is not going to be big enough to win.”

Winning, though, was not really the main point of the Queen’s Challenge; it was “to celebrate taro growers,” said Levin.

The challenge was held to encourage the propagation of old-time varieties of kalo and a return to traditional soil-care practices, Levin continued. In fact, extra points were awarded to kalo grown organically.

Jahzyah’s taro was grown using commercial fertilizers but Raabe used organic methods, said Levin. She said that commercial fertilizers have been used by growers since World War II.

But for the 1,000 years before, kalo was grown using composting of dried taro peelings and other green waste. Fields were rotated and allowed to rest, she said.

The historical records indicate “huge” production per patch and “enormous” individual kalo, maybe 20 to 30 pounds she said.

In the days before the arrival of Capt. James Cook in the 1700s, there were an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 acres of taro fields feeding 300,000 to a million people in Hawaii. Today, there are only 600 acres in taro production statewide, Levin said.

“Lots of room to grow,” she said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at