An Appetite for Culture + VIDEO

How Maui farmers are cultivating ancient wisdom to feed a population—and a hunger for culture.

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Bobby Pahia
Once he started planting kalo, Bobby Pahia had an epiphany: “This is why I exist on this planet.”

But Pahia found his way back. In 1986, he landed a job as a research technician at the Maui Agricultural Research Center in Kula, an outcrop of the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Over the years, the program has proved a bedrock for local farmers by helping them overcome agricultural challenges.

Pahia was then in his early thirties, and recalls being the only Hawaiian on staff—a fortunate circumstance when, in the 1990s, the research center sharpened its focus on kalo.

“The plant pathologist, Dr. [John] Cho, said, ‘I need somebody to work by my side on all these [kalo] projects.’ I was the likely choice,” Pahia says.

The pair genetically fingerprinted varieties of kalo to create a collection of highly diverse plant types, using natural selection to breed them for resistance to disease and pests like phytophthora fungus, or “pocket rot,” which nearly wiped out Hāna’s kalo crop.

“We went around the world and collected over 2,000 kalo varieties—and I had to eat them all,” Pahia grins.

As a result, he speaks of kalo as a sommelier might differentiate among varietals and regions. Pahia’s eyes widen as he describes the golden complexion of cooked mana ‘ulu, or the sweet and pungent aroma of kāī ‘ala and kāī kea varieties.

He explains that in traditional Hawaiian society, families in each region grew a specific variety of kalo that was their kuleana (responsibility) to care for. “Hāna, for example, their kalo is the hāpu‘u; Olowalu is the kumu ‘ele‘ele.”

He points out that about a century ago, there were roughly 250 Hawaiian varieties of kalo. “Today, lucky if we get 80. Those other varieties are gone forever, and we’ll never get back that part of the Hawaiian culture.”

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