Friday, May 16, 2003

Charin Tomomitsu shows the difference in taro sizes that HPC Foods Inc. is seeing: The small one is common among recent harvests, compared with the regular-size one in her left hand.

poi takes a pounding

Damaged crops have
growers cutting supplies

LAHAINA >> A taro-eating snail is making Hawaii's annual graduation-time poi shortage a stickier-than-usual problem for suppliers and buyers this year.

One major supplier on Oahu, HPC Foods Ltd., issued a news release yesterday explaining why it cannot provide enough poi for its customers.

"It's nobody's fault. Everybody's doing what they can," said Charin Tomomitsu, HPC's sales and marketing manager.

She said HPC has been receiving 10 to 15 calls a day from people who want to place orders for poi for parties and graduation luaus -- but cannot fill them. She said besides less taro to make poi, the plants are sometimes five times smaller than usual.

Tomomitsu said the company has had to reduce the poi supply to regular customers by about 15 percent.

Ron Chatman, assistant warehouse manager at Costco in Hawaii Kai, said his store is aware that demand for poi is high in late May and early June because of graduation parties and luaus but has not been able to get enough.

"We're short," he said. "We're trying to bring in as much as we can."

At left, Wilfredo Sadaya, poi department manager for HPC Foods Ltd., shows bags of the product. Taro sizes recently have been small compared with previous harvests.

Charles Reppun, a Waiahole taro grower, said each year around this time, the demand nearly doubles for a couple of weeks.

"We actually turn orders away because we have to space out the taro we have to take care of the steady customers," he said.

Laurie Reppun, who along with her husband, Paul (Charles' brother), operates a small family poi manufacturing business called Waiahole Poi, said people call in December to place orders for June parties.

Others risk being turned away if they call at this time of year.

"Sometimes people are lucky, and we can make it for them," she said.

Taro for poi millings totaled 5.7 million pounds in the state in 2002, down 6 percent from 2001, mainly because of adverse weather, disease and pests, according to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service.

Taro growers said a number of factors are reducing production now.

In Waiahole Valley on Oahu, the taro is coming out of winter weather and cold water that slows the growth of the plant. The taro also suffers from diseases, including leaf blight and taro pocket rot.

On Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, where more than 50 percent of the taro for making poi is produced in Hawaii, apple snails have become a major pest, industry observers said.

The snails (Pomacea canaliculata) grow to the size of small apples and often create holes in the corm, the fleshy part of the taro plant that is made into poi. The holes leave the plant vulnerable to disease. The snails also eat the stem off young plants and kill them before maturity.

Farmers have been picking the snails off the plants but are losing the battle. Two snails can multiply to 28 million snails in a year, scientists said.

Rodney Haraguchi, a taro farmer in Hanalei, Kauai, said his production is down by about 50 percent from last year, and the biggest problem is damage caused by apple snails.

Solomon Kaauamo, a farmer in Keanae, East Maui, said his production has dropped even further. Kaauamo said he is getting about 160 pounds of taro a week from his farm, compared with 500 pounds a week last year and 1,000 pounds five to six years ago.

Kaauamo was somewhat successful a few years ago in reducing the taro damage by importing ducks that ate the snails. But stray dogs have been killing the ducks, leaving the snails to multiply.

"My ducks got wiped out. I pick up more ducks and they get wiped out again," Kaauamo said.

People in Keanae have been selling the snails to restaurants, but the demand has been less than the number of snails produced in the taro patches.

Maui farmers also have been unable to export the snails to other islands because of a state ban against interisland shipment of them.

Researchers have been looking at ways to control the apple snail but have lacked adequate funding, according to Harry Ako, a scientist at the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Ako said the snails were originally from South America and introduced as aquarium pets in Hawaii. Ironically, they were introduced to taro farms on Maui, the Big Island and Kauai in the early 1990s to be bred and sold to restaurants for supplemental income.

The snails are now found on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island, but on Oahu they have not infested taro farms.

Kaauamo, 60, said raising taro is a family tradition, and his grandchildren are now working with him in the taro patches. He said he has seen others give up growing because of the difficulties, but he is hoping to pass on the business because it is a part of Hawaiian culture.

"We got to keep it alive," he said. "If we give up, pau."


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