Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Back Yard
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Taro patch experience
helps problem kids

ISLAND children are discovering themselves and their roots in the taro lo'i (patches) of Kapahu Farm in Kipahulu.

"Many of the kids have never been in mud, were not raised in taro," says Tweetie Lind, a longtime resident of the rural Maui community. "A lot of them have problems; there are special-ed kids, high-risk kids, those who have to take Ritalin to keep them controlled in school. They're dealing with pressure from their parents and teachers. They need help."

Lind and her husband, John, are showing that working with taro can do that.

During a morning tour with school groups that can last up to four hours, they "talk story" about taro: its importance in old Hawaii, the legends surrounding it, varieties that are grown at Kapahu Farm, how the patches are irrigated with water from nearby Oheo Stream, and more.

Then they invite the keiki to kick off their shoes and step knee-deep into the muddy lo'i to turn the soil, pull weeds, and plant and harvest taro. It seems the dirtier the kids get, the more effective the cleansing process.

"Their faces brighten; they squeal and laugh," says Lind. "Their expressions say it all: 'Wow!' It's rejuvenating; it's healing. And the next time they come, you can see big improvements; they're feeling much better about themselves."

Kids have the opportunity to get down and dirty while working in a taro patch at Kapahu Farm on Maui. Poi pounding is one of the many activities offered on the farm.

THE LINDS ARE spearheading an effort to restore more than 30 centuries-old lo'i at Kapahu Farm, which lies about a mile above the famed Pools of Oheo in the easternmost sector of Haleakala National Park. The 5-acre oasis is the major project of the Kipahulu Ohana, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 by the couple and their friend, Michael Minn, who serves as president of its board of directors.

In its mission statement, the Ohana sums up its belief that the future of Kipahulu hinges on its past: "to restore the Kipahulu ahupua'a (ancient land division running from the mountains to the sea) as a model of a living, working, self-sustaining native Hawaiian community circa 1778 to 1848, including the construction and maintenance of traditional native Hawaiian agricultural and aquacultural features."

The time frame is significant. Capt. Cook arrived in the islands in 1778, and the Great Mahele of 1848 reapportioned Hawaiian land among the royal class, government and commoners.

Although the Ohana was not officially established until 1995, when a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service went into effect, the Linds' work with the lo'i began 15 years earlier.

"A kupuna (elder), Uncle Tevi Kahaleauahi, already had cleared a few patches and asked John if he could kokua (help)," recalls Lind. "The rest of the lo'i were completely covered with trees and bushes."

Kids visiting Kapahu Farm on Maui are invited to step into the knee-deep muddy lo'i to turn the soil, pull weeds, and plant and harvest taro.

AS THE LINDS began painstakingly opening the land with hand tools, they envisioned a farm where traditional Hawaiian cultural practices would be revived along with the taro patches.

Scott Crawford, executive director of the Kipahulu Ohana, and his wife, Kekula, were instrumental in turning the dream into reality. Thanks to their efforts as grant writers, the Ohana has received more than $100,000 in the past two years from, among others, Hawaii Community Foundation's Mo' Bettah Together and Organizational Capacity Building programs, the County of Maui, the Bank of Hawaii Charitable Foundation and the Atherton Family Foundation. The funds pay for staff positions, tools, supplies, publishing a newsletter, maintaining a Web site and more.

To date, the Ohana has reconstructed 21 lo'i at Kapahu Farm. Says Lind: "The grants enable us to continue the work and give us incentive. We think, OK, we're on the right track. This is the way to go."

In addition to visits for school groups, the Ohana offers a monthly hour-long Taro Patch Interpretive Hike to the public. Led by Lind, the tour includes a stop at Hale Kuai, a thatched structure that will house demonstrations of traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts when it's completed in six months. Products made on site also will be available for sale there.

Participants also can see the restored house of the last family who lived in the area (they left in the 1930s), their cemetery, and remnants of a flume and dam built by Kipahulu Sugar Plantation, which was in operation from the 1870s through 1920.

The 1-mile hike ends at Kapahu Farm, where five varieties of taro are flourishing in lo'i as large as 60 by 100 feet. Tour-goers are welcome to work shoulder to shoulder with the Linds in the patches.

"Those who do wind up laughing, singing, having a good time," Lind says. "Others just want to nanea (relax) and absorb the beauty around them, and that's fine, too."

PRIVATE GROUPS enjoy customized itineraries. Last weekend, 17 members of Hui Malama Aina, a Hawaiian club at Kamehameha Schools on Oahu, camped at the farm. In addition to laboring in the lo'i, the ninth- through 11th-graders dug an imu (underground oven), made laulau and poi and, under the supervision of master ka hale (house) builder Francis Sinenci, tied loulu palm leaves for thatching.

For six of the past seven years, students from Japan's Gifu University, 18 miles from Nagoya, have also made the long trip to Hawaii specifically to tour Kapahu Farm.

"We've found they are all very smart kids, but they aren't in touch with the land," says Lind. "That's because their grandparents left the farms for city jobs, and they have no connection to the old ways. They don't really know about the Japanese culture."

According to Lind, the students' experience at Kapahu Farm inspires them to teach their family, friends and associates about the importance of conservation and sustainability when they return home. "They urge people to save the trees in Japan, to save the water," she says. "They tell government officials, 'Hey, this is not what we want happening to our land.' "

The Linds believe Kapahu Farm holds great promise. Through malama ka aina (caring for the land), they hope to create jobs for people in the community who are struggling to survive.

"We don't have college diplomas; we're just people of the land trying to make a go of it," says Lind. "One day, perhaps we can expand and the whole area will have taro patches. Maybe we'll be able to build a certified kitchen so we can process our taro into poi and sell it at Haleakala National Park. We'll make crafts and sell them at Hale Kuai. We'll offer more hiking tours."

Sustainability and perpetuating Hawaiian cultural traditions, Lind stresses, are the heart of the Kipahulu Ohana's vision for the future. "We want to work the land," she says. "We want to be the caretakers of the land. We don't want to just talk about life in the ahupua'a, we want to live it."

If you go ...

What: Taro Patch Interpretive Hike

Place: Meet outside Haleakala National Park's Kipahulu Visitor Center, off Highway 36 going east, just past mile marker 42. There is a $10 entrance fee per car. Kipahulu is a three- to four-hour drive one way from Wailea, Kaanapali and Kapalua resorts.

When: 1 p.m., usually on the first Tuesday each month; call to make arrangements on other days.

Cost: Tax-deductible donations to the Kipahulu Ohana may be made after the tour.

Call: 808-248-8974; reservations required

Notes: Food, gas and potable water are not available at Kipahulu. Fill your car's tank and bring water, lunch, rain gear, sunscreen, a hat and sturdy hiking shoes. Wear clothes and footwear for getting dirty. The Kipahulu Ohana also hosts customized half-day, full-day or multiple-day educational retreats that can include camping at Kapahu Farm or Haleakala National Park's public campground.

Web site: www.kipahulu.org

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Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.

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