Taro in Aquaponics Systems Video
In Ancient Times
Wakea (“Sky Father”) and Ho’ohokukalani (his wife) had two children. Their first child Haloanaka (“long stalk trembling leaf”) was keiki alualu (misshapen) and still born at birth. Wakea buried Haloanaka at the end of the hale (house), where he sprouted into the first taro plant. Their second child, Haloanaka’s younger brother, was Haloa, who was the first of the human race.
Thus, the eldest relative of the human race, to whom the most respect and honor is due, is the taro plant. He is our elder brother, and because he supports and nourishes us, is the best elder brother a human can have. This story repeats itself over and over again in other cultures around the world.
The Japanese have a story about rice and the first humans; Native Americans have stories about maize (corn) and the human race; Nuku Hivans have a legend about breadfruit and the first people. We hear similar stories from the many different cultures in our world; their common thread is that we are here because of the food that sustains us. Anciently, people were very in touch and thankful for the source of their lives, a lesson that can still inspire and guide us today.
Why We Love Taro
Taro is a root and leaf crop traditionally grown by Pacific Islanders as a main dietary staple. It is extremely digestible and is a perfect first food for infants. It is good for those with sensitive digestive systems or severe food allergies because it is a completely non-allergenic food. It is high in protein and easily digestible carbohydrates. It tastes really good even if you aren’t a baby or do not have food allergies. Here’s why we love taro:
Taro is a voyager: Taro came to Hawaii and many other Pacific nations on a canoe with the original settlers. We don’t know where taro started out, centuries ago, but it is grown in nations all over the world and is cherished by the cultures that nurture it.
Taro has a history: Many different varieties of taro came to Hawaii with the original settlers a
thousand years ago and thrived. There are hundreds of varieties of taro, and tens of varieties in active cultivation in Hawaii where we live. Taro has names and lineages just like royalty does: families have records of growing a certain type of taro for extended periods of time, sometimes hundreds of years.
Taro is versatile: Taro grows in flooded lo’i (paddies) just like rice (see photo to the right, of the loi taro in Hanalei, on the Island of Kauai), but also grows in dry land. It grows near the sea and up on the mountain. Taro can be eaten cooked, pounded into poi (a flavorful nutritious paste), made up like potato salad, and many other ways. The ancients made poi, wrapped it in leaves, and buried it underground in a special pit, to be dug up months later if there was hunger in the land. The poi, although fermented and soured by its long stay underground, was still edible and nutritious enough to get the people through the famine.
Taro is friendly: Working with taro makes us smile, as does spending time with our friends. Taro is a lot of hard work with a reward that makes it seem effortless. Taro supports us and nourishes our lives.
Taro is more than just a plant: Taro feeds and nourishes our spirits as well as our bodies. It grows higher than our heads and causes us to look up towards the sky, as well as look down to its roots in the earth. Every taro plant has many children which can carry on its genealogy, and that gives us hope for our future and our children’s future.
What we’ve seen: We’ve been growing taro aquaponically for a short time, but it demonstrates the same characteristics that all the other crops we’ve grown this way have: it grows in half the time or less as it takes to mature in the soil. (Vegetables grow two to three times faster in our system than in the ground.
Our first experiment was to build a recirculating taro lo’i lined with a food-grade waterproof liner. These are similar to traditional taro lo’i in that they are filled with water from our fish tanks that circulates over and over from the fish tank to the taro, then back to the fish tank. The difference is that in traditional taro lo’i, river water is flowed through the taro then back to the river. It is necessary to have a free source of thousands of gallons of water a day from a stream or spring to be able to grow taro traditionally.
Aquaponics technology will hopefully allow anyone, anywhere, who has any water at all to grow wetland taro, in the wetland tradition. If this works, you will no longer need expensive (and often scarce) land next to a river or with a year-round spring on it. Because the taro seems to be growing twice as fast as conventionally-grown taro, this technique has the potential to grow two crops in the same time! We hope this ability to produce more crops in the same time, and grow in areas not limited by the availability of river water, will lead to renewed interest and commitment by young farmers to grow taro.
Images of our first generation recirculating aquaponics taro system construction below:
Many, many thanks to Kawelo Lopez (below, left) for sharing his manao [wisdom] with us to build this first taro system. Mahalo nui loa, mau loa.
Our second generation experimental system, planted in late November, is planted in 3″ and 6″ net pots in rafts. We have seen tremendous growth rates, both in root and leaf formation. These pictures were taken on 1/2/09, when the huli had been in the system for six weeks. And almost unbelievably, we had oha forming in the first six weeks! (Oha are the starts that come up from the root, that usually take ~4 months to show up – see photo below on the left.)
Below are photos of one of our taro experiments, begun in January 2009. We harvested huli from a lo’i in Waipio Valley, and being very mindful of biosecurity (no apple snail eggs, no earwigs, etc.), and then we planted them in 10″ pots with 3/4″ base gravel for support. Holes were drilled in the pots to allow water flow in and out of the pots, and the pots with the newly planted huli were put into the system. Update November 2009: IT DIDN’T WORK!. The taro grew slowly with this method and didn’t prosper. The best success we’ve had was with 3″ net pots and the taro planted in our normal planting mix of 60% coir and 40% vermiculite: except that the kalo (corm) grew out of the small 3″ diameter pot (the biggest we had at the time) and stood up to 6 inches above the raft. We are now experimenting with variations on this mix using coarser coir, different methods of supporting the taro, and varied planting densities to see if growing taro aquaponically is commercially possible.
We tried a “silly” experiment about five months ago, and learned that there are no such things as “silly” experiments. Without thinking about it too much, we put a small (6″ tall) taro oha (baby bulb with leaf) into a 2″ net pot in our Micro System. The picture of this taro is just below, with my hand coming in on the left side. The little bump on the bottom is the 2″ net pot. We had to cut off a mass of roots the size of the leaves in order to get the net pot out of the raft. I just had an open hole in the Micro System and didn’t have anything else sprouted to put into it. This taro amazingly grew into one of the largest taro we’ve ever seen come out of ANY method for growing taro.
The kalo (corm) was 3-1/2 pounds in weight, and it had three oha growing off it that each yielded a 3/4 pound kalo (usable root for cooking and eating). In addition, there was a total of 25 oha (babies) growing off the main root, each of which could be planted and would create a new taro plant.
We are still working with our taro with the goal of eliminating approximately 80% of the work involved in growing taro and take the remaining work required into the shade, to be done sitting down. A huge benefit of taro grown aquaponically is that when you harvest, the kalo is already clean; there is no dirt or gravel on it! We will continue our taro experimentation to find a profitable way to grow taro aquaponically, because with this knowledge anyone anywhere will be able to grow taro, not just those who are lucky enough to have land next to a stream or river.
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