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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2003

Taro crop problems mean shortage in poi supply

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Poi has become a precious commodity on supermarket shelves, the result of especially paltry production levels at a time of peak demand for the starchy staple of the Hawaiian diet.

HPC Foods Ltd., makers of market leader Taro Brand poi products, announced yesterday that it's no longer taking orders for parties — and there are always lots of parties during graduation season — because the company is hard pressed even to keep supermarkets supplied.

Levi Maon, a buyer for Daiei markets, said the shortage seems to have peaked in the past two weeks.

"Last week on a Wednesday, I was at the Waipahu store," Maon said. "At 8:30 a.m., the poi was sold out for the day. I checked out the competitors in the area, and we weren't alone."

The problem began more than a year ago, when the current crop of taro, from which poi is made, began to grow, said Charin Tomomitsu, HPC's sales and marketing director.

"There were floods in Hanalei and Hale'iwa, and Hale'iwa got unnaturally cold," she said. "It's not just one factor, it's a combination of all these things happening."

At the HPC Kalihi Kai plant, company president Ernest Tottori peered over a cardboard box lid in which one fat and bulbous corm, the business end of the taro plant, sat amid a family of its midget-sized kin.

Tottori watched as they rolled around and shook his head. The bigger corm is normal-sized most years, but every single mini-tuber is finding its way to the poi bowl this summer.

"When you're short, what are you going to do?" he said. "You gotta use them all."

Tottori is both company executive and hands-on farmer, overseeing the 30 acres of taro fields the company plants in Hale'iwa.

He also buys taro from 40 other farmers on O'ahu, Kaua'i and the Big Island, where production is off an estimated 20 percent, even from the usual seasonal decline growers expect in late spring and early summer.

Cold snaps at various times and locations caused excessively dewy conditions that encouraged leaf blight, he said, and some crops were affected by attacks of the apple snail, a perennial taro pest.

But the problem is not simply a short-term crunch, Tottori added. Little is being done to encourage new taro farmers to enter the marketplace. Only about 400 acres statewide are planted in taro, a land commitment that hasn't changed in 20 years while population and demand has increased, he said.

"We need more young farmers, and we need more land and water to grow more taro.

"People look for housing as a way to use land, but if you don't preserve land for future generations, we won't have any land for anything," Tottori said.

A report released in January by the Hawai'i Agricultural Statistics Service indicates 5.7 million pounds of taro was milled for poi last year, down 6 percent from 2001, marking the beginning of the current decline. Poi millings had increased at an average annual rate of 2 percent during the past decade, according to the report.

The retailers, meanwhile, are worried more about the current crisis. Maon said the troubles got worse a year ago when The Poi Company Inc. shut down.

"Even when The Poi Company was still around, there was always a shortage of poi," he said.

Tottori said manufacturers have to ration their product deliveries across the board in an attempt to be fair, but Maon said customer complaints are coming in fast and furious.

At many stores, the poi arrives a few times a week, and usually between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., he said.

"You've got to be in the store at the right time to get the poi, or it's gone," he said.

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.