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Green acres: Growing taro in hard places is just the challenge for farmers like Bobby Pahia

Wide variety of crops being produced on 310 acres in Waikapu

Kalo farmer Bobby Pahia of Hoaloha Farms stands in a field of his dryland taro Friday morning in Waikapu. He is in charge roughly 300 acres of farmland owned by developer Mike Atherton and subleased to about eight individual farmers. Pahia is gathering a group of young educators and researchers who aim to change the way people perceive local food and farming. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAIKAPU — Bobby Pahia refused to be a taro farmer.

Nope. Not happening. Never.

He said growing up on Oahu, his friends all had to work on taro farms after school — there was no way he would do that kind of hard labor.

In his 30s, something changed.

“I don’t know what happened,” Pahia said. “When I started planting taro, I believe something spiritual came over me. I think I got connected. . . . I tied into my ancestors or something.”

James “Kimo” Simpliciano of Simpli-Fresh Produce tills a Waikapu plot Friday. The chef and farmer has moved his growing operations to Waikapu after having his west side crops destroyed during last year’s major brush fire in Lahaina. Simpliciano said landowner Mike Atherton is paving the way for smart development in Maui, which mixes agriculture and affordable housing. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Pahia started growing taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, under the tutelage of University of Hawaii’s Dr. John Cho. And not just a little kalo, a lot of kalo. He and his wife would plant acres and acres around Maui, including Pulehu, Kula, Maliko, Wailuku and even the plot where Costco now sits in Kahului.

His eyes light up when he talks about the challenge of growing taro in hard places, especially in dry land, which is unpopular because it has to be done right. Called a canoe crop since it was brought by ancient Polynesians to Hawaii via canoe, kalo is linked to life, survival, culture, ritual and identity for Native Hawaiians.

The persistent crop sure resembles the farmer.

Hard work, endurance and passion are essentials to farming, Pahia said, but it seems especially so for the person in charge of a huge chunk of developer Mike Atherton’s 2,000 acres in the area, which includes Maui Tropical Plantation.

“He didn’t give anyone else a 300-acre lease,” Pahia said. “He trusts me and it took years to gain his trust.”

Ho‘omana Farms pigs enjoy a healthy meal Friday morning. Hanalei Colleado and son Ho‘omana Colleado sublease the farm from head farmer Bobby Pahia and raise duroc, Yorkshire and Hampshire pigs. The pens are moved often, when the pigs chew the grass to the nub, leaving behind well-fertilized plots. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Waikapu Country Town’s first seeds

While the 500-acre town part of the Waikapu Country Town project is still in permitting stages, the 310-acre agricultural side has been in production for the last two-and-a-half years.

Located below Maui Tropical Plantation, the farmland borders Honoapiilani and Kuihelani highways. It’s home to about seven to eight farmers who sublease between 1 to 13 acres and pay the same rates as Pahia does for his roughly 90 acres of kalo.

“The intention wasn’t just to hoard 300 acres,” he said. “I know how hard it is to get land and water. Long-term leases and water security are a hard thing to come by.”

A native Hawaiian plant nursery. Super sweet mango. Ulu trees. Dragon fruit. Subsistence-farming plots. Hog farming. Sweet potatoes. Cucumber. Banana patches. The farmers grow a variety of crops, some separated by tall cane grass, not the eating kind, that serve as natural windbreaks. Tractors motor around the plots linked by dirt roadways.

Some farmers utilize all-natural, organic methods while others are conventional, Pahia said, adding that the two worlds must coexist and that maybe with new practices, conventional will move toward organic.

Formerly used for monocropping that stripped the earth of nutrients and left it dead, the swath of land is undergoing soil remediation efforts to restore health.

Much of the food is grown and sold locally. The remainder is consumed by individual families in subsistence farming.

James “Kimo” Simpliciano, who lost his farm during last year’s Lahaina fire, grows produce to stock his Simpli-Fresh Farm. Pahia, the private farmer for Hoaloha Farms, a subsidiary of Na Hoaloha ‘Ekolu that comprises Old Lahaina Luau, Aloha Mixed Plate, Star Noodle and Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop in West Maui, supplies kalo to the company.

“What other luau can say that they grow their own kalo for poi or their own bananas for their banana bread?” he said. “You know who is really interested in this? The tourists.”

Goals of growing education, research

The land is also a field of very big dreams for Pahia and a growing team of volunteers.

“Some people call me crazy,” Pahia said Friday. The sun-soaked farmer beams when talking about the move away from big ag, monocropping, plantation era to the new, sustainable, organic, giving-back style of farming. “I want to feed a nation.”

Winsome Williams of Paia, Emory Belair of Kula and Simpliciano of Lahaina are part of Pahia’s core group called La Kahea, which will focus on education and research facets of the farm.

They hope to help bring healthy, locally grown food to Maui schools and partner with public and private groups to alter the way people shop for food.

“We shouldn’t be bringing oranges and apples from somewhere else,” said Pahia, the president of Hawai’i Farmers Union United’s Mauna Kahalawai chapter. “That’s the dilemma the whole state is in. Our state can’t produce enough food.”

Williams, La Kahea project director, is focused on a collaborative effort with Purehive, a locally based company, to create a “beehab,” which would create more bees and honey.

“We will be planting diverse cover crops that are consistently flowering and blooming,” she said. “When bees have access to a mix of diversity in cover crops in flowers, the hives are able to be a lot healthier. . . . A healthy colony of bees reflect a healthy ecosystem.”

The La Kahea group believes this transitional time in Maui agriculture is ripe for changing the way people perceive the significance of local farmers.

Community involvement and educational events, such as bringing 80 students from Kamehameha Schools Kapalama Campus recently to University of Hawaii Maui College student tour last semester, offer ways to positively impact the future.

“He had a lot of great ideas on how he wants to help the community,” said UH-MC ag student Jenna Miller, 22, who visited the farm with a class last semester. “Uncle Bobby inspires me to try new things with farming and to be open-minded to new ideas and to be flexible with how the agriculture industry has changed.”

Inviting an era of new life

Pahia said one of the two Hawaiian names given to him about the entire 310-acre parcel is “Po Kahea.”

Historically invading armies from the Big Island would meet Maui warriors there, which resulted in many deaths, the farmer said. It became a place of spirits wandering, trying to find their way through a portal or entryway, the “po.”

” ‘Po Kahea’ is calling for that portal to find your way back,” he said.

Pahia said they’ve since renamed the area.

“This is a new time. After 144 years of monocropping, whether pineapple or sugar cane, that era is pau.”

Now, it is called “La Kahea,” he said. “We are calling in the light. We’re calling in new life to this place.”

The farmer, now 63 with three adult children, said he understands when people are apathetic. He admits he used to be that way.

“I strongly believe in the scripture that people perish for the lack of vision,” he said. “They’ve just lost hope. For me, this has become my hope, my dream. I get up in the morning and it’s a joy.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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