For centuries the prized lehua wetland taro has been cultivated on the banks of Kauai’s Waimea River. This is a place of ancient agricultural terraces, where a hand-hewn aqueduct is credited to the menehune and the soil is moistened by water from the slopes of Mount Waialeale. It’s also home to the Makaweli Poi Mill, which twice a week produces a much treasured, mildly pungent, extra thick poi. “This is the kind of poi that we grew up with, so naturally we all think it’s the best,” says mill founder John Aana, explaining Makaweli Poi’s appeal. Aana’s family has been farming loi patches in Waimea for at least a century, and it was the love of taro, plain and simple, Aana says, that motivated him to start the mill fourteen years ago. The place is staffed by a dozen or so part-time workers, including many who, like Aana, work full time at a nearby Kauai fire station. And though poi production is a rugged, hands-on job that defies automation, the crew has never missed Makaweli’s twice-weekly run—even when that’s meant getting up in the middle of the night to work wizardry with a busted boiler pipe.
But in the last few years, there’s been trouble at the mill: far fewer deliveries of the 80-pound bags of taro corms to Makaweli’s doors. Many veteran taro farmers have aged, and a younger generation—albeit one weaned on poi—has not eagerly stepped into the shoes of their forebears. Make those extra-muddy shoes, thanks to a spate of rain and floods that have hurt taro crops. Feeling discouraged, Aana himself last year began thinking of selling the mill and retiring. But then he got an offer he couldn’t refuse: stay on as a consultant, organize a West Kauai taro farmers collective and create training programs to teach students how to keep the Makaweli mill grinding. “In Waimea we have the sun, the water and the land,” says Aana. “That’s not a problem. But the land needs to be worked if we want to continue to feed ourselves and stay the community that we’ve always been."