Kalo, Feeding Hawaii’s People for Generations

By Andy Beth Miller

Tending to the Lo`i Kalo with Aloha

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Reflections and Taro. Photo courtesy of B Mully via flickr.

I recently found myself knee deep in mud pulling weeds on a Saturday. I wasn’t alone. I was attending a work day at a farm named Kumuola tucked in the back of Manoa Valley just 15 minutes from Waikiki. Along with about 20 other people, I was pulling weeds and planting kalo (taro) in a lo`i (mud patch).

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Photo courtesy of Kumuola Foundation.

One may wonder why on earth anyone would choose to spend their Saturday off planting kalo and pulling weeds! Well, allow me to explain: It’s really a beautiful story.

What is Kalo?

kalo

Photo courtesy of Kumuola Foundation.

I came to Kumuola, a farm and local community foundation, to learn about the kalo plant. What I found is a community of people tending to these plants with love.

The kalo plant is a root with a stalk and leaves that grow upward. The root is about the size of my fist, sometimes much bigger. The leaves are heart-shaped.

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A stone hand tool is used to pound kalo into pa`i `ai, shown here. Water is then added to pa`i `ai to make poi. Photo courtesy of Kumuola Foundation.

Poi and lau lau are two common products of the plant and considered Hawai`i delicacies. Poi is made by grounding the kalo root and adding water. Lau lau is made by wrapping kalo leaves around pieces of pork and fish and then steaming the entire bundle.

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Pork laulau. Photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz via flickr.

This crop plays a significant role in Hawai`i’s cultural, historical and culinary worlds. Kalo is Hawai`i’s most elemental food.

Feeding a People

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Kalo fields in 1910 with Diamond Head in the background. Photo courtesy of Star-Advertiser Archives.

The original Polynesian people who settled in Hawaii brought this plant with them. At one time, much of the land that is now known as Honolulu and Waikiki was covered in kalo fields. Whatever did they need so many acres for, you ask? Well, kalo was the main staple of the Hawaiians diet at the time like bread or rice or noodles might be to other cultures. When the kalo was made into poi, it could feed everyone from infant to elder because poi is soft and nutrient dense. This makes it valuable for feeding an entire people.

Growing Kalo: A Labor of Love

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Photo courtesy of Kumuola Foundation.

Kalo is grown in a lo`i, a patch of land specifically set aside for cultivation. Kalo can be grown using wet-land or dry land fields, although the wet-land fields have been known to be much more plentiful when it comes time to producing a viable harvest. Lowland areas are best suited for kalo, while the uplands see such plants as sugar cane and sweet potatoes.

I come to learn that just as much as the plant itself is significant, so is the way kalo is grown and harvested. Kalo takes a whopping seven months to come to fruition. Once harvested, the lo`i fields must be handled with care. The lo`i must be used in rotation so that the soil may replenish itself between cycles. Kumuola, where my kalo adventure has brought me to today, is dedicated to honoring Hawaii’s land by incorporating such sustainable and pono (right and proper) farming practices as these.

Creating a Shared Sacred Space

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Photo courtesy of Kumuola Foundation.

Kumuola’s Executive Director, Pauline “Kuki” Kaiwi Navales’ enthusiasm bubbles over through a beaming smile that lights up whenever she even mentions Hawaii, the land and the people who make up this remarkable place she calls home. Navales explains to me her passion that serves to fuels this farm and foundation, “We want to create a cultural, educational, sustainable, sacred space for all our people of Hawaii and the World,” she says.

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Photo courtesy of Kumuola Foundation.

Just one of the unique ways that Pauline, along with her husband Nicholas, is able to share this sacred space with local ohana (community and family) and those visitors from abroad is via the foundation’s cultural experience programs. These opportunities give the rare chance for guests (like me) to actually come to the land— nestled deep in the lush and sacred valley of Manoa— to witness the growing of gardenia flowers, participate (yes, knee-deep!) in the tending of the lo’i and more. The foundation also offers guided experiences, classes and workshops that teach about the history and culture of this beautiful land, its people and the kalo.

After my day spent squishing through the mud, volunteering and sharing my sweat—and squeals (that was when I came across that big, wooly worm!)—I, too, left with aloha for the lo`i.

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