[Originally published in KALEO on October 31, 1996]
Almost 200 people turned out early Saturday morning, Nov. 2nd, before the sun climbed over the Ko’olau ridges of Kahana Valley to squish their toes in the mud and help Ron Johnson plant huli or taro tops in his family patch alongside Kamehameha Highway. It had been almost 20 years since the lo’i had been used to grow taro.
“We had families from the Big Island, Molokai, Waianae,” Johnson said. “Lie had a good representation along with the neighboring communities. It was a great experience. The kids had a ball.”
“Basically, it’s the restoration of an old family patch. I’m trying to share it with the kids, and I hope we have more people who know how, who’ve done it before, come out and give me a hand. We need all the help we can get.”
Johnson, typically, respectfully understates his own abilities and is not without experience in the field, or we should say, taro patch: “My uncle, Clarence Au, when we were teenagers we used to go every Saturday and go help him, but that was just for home use. The taro we’re growing now is for personal use, and for sharing.
“It’s a lot of work. I wouldn’t recommend it as a career unless you really love it. It’s kind of like fishing:?I’ve done a lot of fishing, and taro farming is probably the same thing. You know, if you’re commercial you’re really subject to the supply and demand of the market. That’s really a roller coaster, but you got to love it. You really got to want to do it.”
“The people who come out to plant, some of them I know they know about taro. You know, It’s real important,” he said, “I’m not an expert about taro. It’s just something I want to do and I’m going to learn along with everybody else. Hopefully, we put out more good information than bad.”
“No, I don’t plan to be a taro farmer. It’s hard work, but it’s just something that seemed like fun to do and I wanted to go back and learn more about it. I’ve been also doing research and getting help from other people, commercial taro farmers. They’re advising me and helping me. I got an offer from a farmer in Kahalu’u, a very old friend, who came to offer all the huli I need, however big the project gets, so I do have some technical support.”
How does Johnson and his family like to eat taro??”We eat a lot of poi, but we haven’t made it for years. As a snack right now we just steam them in the stove, slice them up and eat them with sugar and milk. But we will be making poi, I hope. That’s the goal, is to make poi.”
Johnson, a 1967 graduate of Kahuku High School, worked for quite a few years as a marine mechanic but for the past 15 years has served with the Fire Department and is a captain at Hau’ula Station. “I have the luxury of working in my community and I love it,” he said. He met his wife, Anita Lam, who’s originally from New Zealand, while she was attending school here. The couple have three girls and one granddaughter. His mother, Adella Au Johnson, is a retired school teacher and a lifelong community member.
Johnson has strong ties to Laie. “My uncle, Ben Au, mom’s brother, and many others I don’t want to mention. I might leave somebody out and get scolding,” he says with a grin.
Johnson definitely sees planting the taro patch as part of his Hawaiian heritage. “I’ve got to go back and learn a lot of things I never learned the first time around.”
— Story and photo by Mike Foley