Kahele, Robert (Part 5)
Waipi‘o: Māno Wai, An Oral History Collection by The University of Hawai‘i Ethnic Studies Program
Robert Kahele, Hawaiian, was born on May 1, 1917 in Honoka‘a. Since the family lived in Waimanu Valley, Robert and his mother went back to Waimanu shortly after his birth. He spent about four years in Waimanu before moving to Waipi‘o for one year. From Waipi‘o, the Kaheles moved to Kukuihaele. Robert grew up speaking Hawaiian and English. Robert finished the eighth grade at Kukuihaele School. His father died when he was about 12, so Robert became, “the man of the house,” responsible for harvesting taro and pounding poi for the family. After the eighth grade he took a job with the plantation for two years. At age 18 he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Waimea. After a year and a half there, he worked for a Pa‘auilo transportation company. Then he served four and a half years in the military on O‘ahu. Robert returned home to Kukuihaele in about 1946. He worked two years for the County, but because he sought freedom and independence, he started farming taro in Waipi‘o. About seven years ago (1970) Robert moved back into Waipi‘o Valley where he farms taro—right next to his hanai brother Joe Kala’s patches.
In 1978, Vivien Lee and Yukie Yoshinaga-Solmoiraghi from the University of Hawaiʻi’s Ethnic Studies program interviewed Waipiʻo residents for an oral history project called Waipiʻo: Māno Wai. Robert Kahele’s interview is included in Volume 1 of this published project.
VL: So the cooperative that Ginji Araki started [approx. 1950], how did you first hear about that?
RK: Well, we got to talking with him. He said that was one way of establishing a sort of a price level for taro. And any time you ask for raise, one wouldn’t stay back. Everybody came in and everybody got raises. That seemed like a good idea until some of the big farmers didn’t want to come in because they were so independent. And all he got was the small farmers, which was kind of weak. With small farmers around without the big farmers, even the small farmers not that strong. So the co-op was mostly only the small farmers. It didn’t last long.
VL: Did you join?
RK: Yeah, I joined.
VL: Why did you join?
RK: I joined because I felt he had a good idea if it worked. It would be possible for the taro farmers to be all together, instead of one independent. Like, at any time the grower can be almost like a screw, a bald headed screw in that machine, that co-op machine.
VL: I don’t know what you mean by “a bald headed screw.”
RK: You can’t turn ’em, see. We had a lot of bald headed screws down here. Too independent, you can’t turn ’em to join the co-op. And they still too independent till today so, I mean, probably they saw there was some good being independent. But with the smaller farmers, that was like taking the props out of the table or the chair. You know, not very good balance. Not steady, not solid.
VL: What were taro prices like before the co-op?
RK: Before the co-op, the price was something like $5.50 a bag. And when they had the co-op, the thing went up to $8 a bag. That’s the last time that I remember, that the price was about $8.
VL: Did it go up because of the co-op?
RK: Yeah. I think so the co-op had something to do with it. So after that, I didn’t think that much about co-op.
VL: You mean after that one died?
RK: Yeah. I didn’t want to join any more co-op because you couldn’t get the farmers together. That’s pretty hard.
VL: But while the co-op lasted, how was it with the small farmers being members?
RK: The thing was, like if you were in the co-op, if you had a surplus of taro, the co-op would try to get ’em, ship your taro out. Probably to some other market, inside the co-op market. That was one good thing about the co-op. But then with the small farmers, there’s hardly any surplus.
VL: What do you think caused it to dissolve?
RK: Probably disagreement among the members themselves. They couldn’t see eye to eye with you, with one another.
VL: About what things?
RK: About business things like building up your own poi shop. At first, like everybody say, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” Somebody sort of hold back. Then they don’t agree too much on that idea.
VL: What did you think of that idea?
RK: Would have been good. Would have been good if it went through. The idea was really good. But, as I said, before the thing even completed, well, we had all this disagreement. Like the one who had the idea of starting that co-op, he sort of pull out. And let the others run the business, try run the business. In no time at all the whole thing was sort of collapsed. The co-op was just . . . just wasn’t any co-op any more. With just few members, members were pulling out too.
VL: Did you pull out?
RK: Yeah, I pull out. I thought it was better to pull out. Some of the members weren’t being honest about their . . . like say, the president of the co-op would ask how many bags you have. Then he comes up with 5,000 bags. Actually he hasn’t got a single thing going on his place. Now, when you have a guy do that, all he’s doing is knocking the props out of the co-op. You can look at him when a person does that, you don’t know what his intentions are. Why he’s in the co-op. Because you can’t have people lying in the co-op. It has to be for real. Not just a fairy tale thing.
VL: Why would someone tell a lie like that? What advantage to them?
RK: Well, I don’t know. Prestige, I guess. “I’m this, I got so many.” And yet, he has nothing growing there. So I don’t know what name you would give people like that. Pride and prestige, ego, whatever.
VL: Did you lose any money?
RK: Yeah. Because I used to go in, like every month you had to pay so much. And then the co-op had to have so much to stand on, the capital to stand on. And the member had to supply that capital. Before they can start a poi shop. That and I don’t think they had any business-minded person in there [except] that old man Araki. The rest was just, well, didn’t have any experience. So I guess, lack of experience. Because some of them couldn’t see eye to eye with the old man. And I didn’t disagree with the old man but I disagreed with some of the members, the way they were trying to go against the old man. So I gave ’em words. And there’s some bickering, you know, among that sort of people. Before I start paying more I said I might as well get out. First one came out. Then two came out. Then three came out. Then no more.
VL: The more recent one, the Taro Growers Association that Merrill Toledo was president of, did you join that one?
RK: Yeah. I join that one. But that too didn’t last long.
VL: What was the main problem there?
RK: The main problem is . . . I guess, like any other thing, it’s almost like . . . had disagreement. Some are loyal to their poi shop. They didn’t want anything to hinder their poi shop. And some is not willing to go through that because the price of poi might be going too far out and the poi, I guess we get had time get poi. The burden would be on the poi eaters. I attended that one meeting and some of their quibblings were more childish than anything. All this meeting where they come over, they always quibbling. More childish than anything else. So I just think, “This isn’t the type of meeting I like to come in.” So I just pull out. I had one experience when people start arguing over unnecessary things, bringing to the meeting unnecessary things. And their argument is not concerning to the business matter at the meeting. It’s outside things, you know. Then, I just think, “I don’t belong in this place. I had one time like this.” And the second time, I might as well pull out before I start investing. This second one, this taro association, was short lived. Wasn’t too . . .
VL: I just remembered a question I was going to ask you about the Araki one. Every bag that you sold through the co-op, did the co-op take a percentage?
VL: How much was that?
RK: Shee, I don’t actually remember. Was too damn long time ago. But think was something like, somewheres around 15 cents a bag. And that 15 cents came like the bag and string. I think was 15 cents or, I don’t remember. You were charged for the string, you were charged for the bag. And that came out of what you could get from one bag. Say, maybe $8 a bag, then you only get $7.85 or something like that.
VL: How did you feel about paying that?
RK: I didn’t mind because it went to the co-op. So I didn’t mind. Because of course you had to but string, you had to buy bags. But the bag was, like the poi shop would send the bag. But the thing is, he [Araki] would send the bag, get ’em ready, all wrap up. The tickets there, the string there. All ready to go. You just come over there, pick up your bag and go. You don’t have to count.
VL: Araki would do that?
RK: Yeah. And then, for his phone and some other, for business calls like that. I think it came out to quarter, if I’m not mistaken.
VL: So some of this money went to Araki himself to take care of his expenses?
RK: Right. Yeah.
VL: Did other people mind paying that?
RK: No, they didn’t mind. Because he was doing the paper work and everything. I don’t think they mind.
VL: So what was the difference between dealing with Araki and, say, dealing with any other agent or dealer?
RK: The difference was like, he would go . . . because when he went to ask for a raise, you figure how many farmers that he had in the co-op. He had about five people, six people in the co-op. Okay, when he went and asked for a raise, he had all these guys backing him up. And if wanted $8 a bag, he would get $8 a bag, because these people won’t send taro to that poi shop, to the different poi shop. Okay, so he got the $8. And that’s how it raised the taro price for the farmers up here. Instead of staying down to $5.50. Well, to me, that was good. They’re having spokesman, business spokesman. But to handle paper work is another thing, you know. The old man was doing that, most of the paper work. Although his English was limited, but his knowledge about business was, probably I consider 100%. And that 100% came with guts and boy, (laughs) he had lots of guts. That I can say for the old man. He wasn’t afraid to go face the poi shop guys and tell ’em, “Eh, I wasn’t $8.” Because the amount of poi you make out of one bag of taro is this much. At least you realize this much poi coming out of one bag taro. And you selling so many pound for a dollar. You practically make about $60 a bag, for one bag of taro. And he couldn’t see the farmers getting $5.50 for $6.00 a bag. Today, just think about it today. Taro price is up $19, you know, certain markets. You know when we just got through pulling that taro the other side? After that Joe’s one. Right after that, the price went up $19. I told Joe, “We just missed the boat by three miles.” All we getting is $16 a bag. So the other guys now, getting on the gravy train. They hitting that. They get taro to sell so the making $19 a bag.
VL: Is that all markets now?
RK: No. One in particular. But that’s going to bring the other markets up because these people going turn around and give their taro to that market. And then the other markets, I don’t know. Might still need taro and they might chase for that $19.
YY: In the case of that market that raised its price from $16 to $19, was there pressure put on by the farmers to pay?
RK: No. The pressure was the lack of taro. The demand for poi in that area was more than the farmers could come up with. And he himself didn’t have much taro. Because of the drought, I think, on the other side of the island.
VL: But now, most people have regular markets that they sell to, right? So when this one poi shop offers $3 extra, who comes to him? Because all the farmers have their regular markets?
RK: You don't have to worry about that. You ever heard of “under the table” dealing? Like, you’d be sending to that other market. And I’d be selling to this $19 market. Okay. I can just say, “Why don’t you find me about three bags? You get $19 per bag.” “Oh yeah, I get only $16 the other side. So I can let go three bags.” I go to the next one, use the same method. Another three bags. Another one, another four bags. Sure, they always can slide under the table. For that price, they would sell their grandmother even if they had to. Yeah. Taro farmers are that way. They not too wired. I would sell my grandmother.
VL: Joe was saying that you folks don’t have a regular market.
RK: No. More like jumping beans you know. Once in a while, we’ll be selling to Seiko’s. Then the next time, we’ll be selling to this person. We don’t have any market. We’re the kind that just plays around. Where the price is good, we just stick ourselves there. Then, if that market out we help keep ’em going . . . even if we don’t have taro now, we catch that next round. On the next round, we catch the same ride. So what we do is try to help the market out, keep ’em going. Then I go over to you, you’re a grower for that market. I go, “Hey, how about sliding me over three bags? $19 a bag.”
“Oh yeah. Okay.” It’s just like, “Yeah, my grandmother’s not worth $19. I give you three bags.”
VL: You mean you would buy from another farmer, in order to sell to the $19 market?
RK: Yeah. I would buy ’em the same guy. I mean, if you want to help the market. The market that’s giving you the $19. Keep him going until the next round, you can get on that gravy train. But if you put him out of commission, then no trains coming through. So what you do is keep him going. Even if . . . your taro you pull me three bags, I still have to pay you the $19. But it’s just to keep that market going. That’s what they been doing now. They sneak in. They say, “Eh, give me three bags.” And then he say, “Okay.” The next time, you go, “Oh yeah, you can give me four bags next week?” See, that’s how like dealing under the table. That’s not your market that’s you supplying. It’s somebody else’s market. And that system is going around in this valley here. I don’t know how many bags the guy sliding out from his regular market. He might be shipping 20 bags to his regular market and 10 bags he, maybe, shipping to that other market. Where the green grass is, that’s where he like to hang around.
VL: So for you and Joe, it’s best to not be attached to any market?
RK: Yeah. Just float.
VL: How much land do you have now? Your own.
RK: Nothing. Nothing, I’m just sharecropping.
VL: Well, I mean, how much are you farming?
RK: One and a half acres. But that’s not all open yet. I don’t know. Because each time, Joe is giving me his place and . . .
VL: How much patches is that?
RK: Joe get what, only four patches now. He used to get five. Yeah, he gave me one of his patches; that leaves him with about two big ones and two small ones. Now I got 1, 2, and 3, 4 average ones.
VL: And just recently you pulled for how many weeks continuously?
RK: About four weeks. I finished that patch in four weeks, I think. Just like one month.
VL: How many bags did you reap?
RK: Just around to 75. I just go tell Toledo. “Eh, I pull five this week.” “You can pull more?” “No can.” I mean, you can pull all what you want. It’s up to you. But then, if the price should change. Because taro gets more scarce and scarce. If the price changes and you still have some taro, then you can latch on to the new prices. But when you all out, you all out. That’s all. And then the new prices say like, “You just missed me.”
VL: Can you tell us some about how you grow your taro now? For example, the way that you cut your huli now. And replant.
RK: I don’t find making the huli, cutting the huli or what, any different from the other farmers. But, I guess, the planting part, yeah, has something little bit different. Somebody like ’em 30 inch wide, somebody like 26. But I prefer utilizing all the space I can. Like, if I plant 24 inches, huli to huli, I wouldn’t give 30-inch space between. Because this space here is, I figure is enough from one huli to the other. This huli ought to be knock with the other line. Why should the spacing be more wide? Unless, of course, where you don’t have sun the whole day. Like up the narrow area. Then, probably, you need a type of line that’s wide enough. You know, get as much sun between the rows. But down there, I don’t think that’s necessary. See, up here it’s different. From one side of the cliff to the other, you don’t have many hours of sunlight. So you probably have to make your lines wider so you can get as much of the sun as possible.
VL: Do you do anything to your huli before you plant it?
RK: Oh yeah. Well, besides looking at it . . . no, I dry my huli out in the sun. That sort of heals where the but, you know the cut you make in the huli.
VL: How long do you do that for?
RK: Couple days maybe, you know, just the front where the but is. Well, the back, where the shoots come out, you supposed to cover that. That part of the huli, the top side, if her get burned, it’s hard for the young shoots to come out. It’ll come out all right but it’ll catch on that dry part of the cutting, way on top. And then it start bending back like. So it’s best to get that part covered up.
VL: Do you dampen it at all? Before you cover it?
RK: Usually what happens, if you cover that thing it has its own moisture. It collects the moisture through the night and then it makes for still has that moisture through the day, because of that covering.
VL: You talked about using fertilizer before?
RK: Uh huh. I never had a chance to use fertilizer. I mean, I never did use fertilizer. To me, fertilizer is okay, it’s a good thing. But to grow ’em natural is probably my only method of growing taro. I don’t use chemical. What more chemical would you use, especially when you spraying with Paraquat and all that.
VL: You don’t spray?
RK: I spray with Paraquat. That’s about enough chemical that gets into the taro probably. And, on top of that, you spray this other chemicals for make the taro grow. And how much natural is that taro going to be when you make ’em into poi? Probably half of that is chemical infested?
VL: How do you feel about going completely natural and not using Paraquat?
RK: I feel I can do it. I mean, my patches aren’t that big. But if it’s okay with the government, that these people been using Paraquat, then I don’t see why you can’t go with Paraquat if it saves you labor. That’s what Paraquat is. Save you labor and all that. And even these chemicals that you use to grow the taro is, gradually, you going to over tax that place with this. Like all these different chemicals you going use, how long the land is arable is anybody’s guess. Then you got to apply more chemical fertilizer. And then add some other chemicals. Because you already depleted the natural elements in the water. Or in the taro field. Actually, these chemicals can do that, you know. And if you take notice, the first time you use that fertilizer, you notice the growth. It goes just like it had that super growth. Then the second time you plant, you notice that without that fertilizer, that thing look stunted. Applying, you keep up all your fertilizer. You got to grow ’em see. And each time, you increase the amount of fertilizer. Because you can’t be using the first amount that you used. That’s already taken up. And you got to add more fertilizer and more fertilizer. In the end, you have to let that place go idle for a while.
VL: You know people that that happened to?
RK: Yeah, their growth.
VL: So how you replenish your soil, if you don’t . . .
RK: The only way I can see is let it idle, let it grow over. And nature itself can bring about this loss in the soil. Probably just half an inch of organic matter on top. That means a lot to bring back the taro field to life again.
VL: But can you afford to do that, as a small farmer with small patches?
RK: Yeah. I think you can if you really have your mind set on doing it. But I’m not using chemical fertilizer so I don’t have to let my land go idle. Even though it’s a small farm, I don’t have to do that. Replenish or whatever. The only thing is, like they say, give the soil time to rest. But now days, you don’t see that. You just pull and start planting from behind.
VL: Do you folks do that too?
RK: Yeah. We do that. I don’t know why, but. Probably not to let the grass catch up with you so you start planting.
VL: Have you folks had any rot in this last one you pulled?
RK: Joe’s one, yeah, you know that patch that he had going down. Yeah, that had rot. But the next patch about that was all right. He had good crop.
VL: So what do you think is causing that rot?
RK: Actually, I think the climate has something to do with it. Because a doctor from this University of Hawai‘i Extension Service came here. Checked the water, checked the soil, and checked some of this rotten taro. He couldn’t come up with anything definite, much less the layman. He was just as bad as the taro grower, just guessing. But I’m beginning to see that some of the taro fields that were rotten, the last time, they beginning to show promise of the good crop. Like one of Toledo’s patches, that number two patch. He estimate that patch, he supposed to harvest 300 bags. And all he got was 100 bags from that patch. Now the other 200 went to rot. Now, I go out there and check, I go look his taro field out there, the second patch where he had all this rotten taro. Why, those huli coming out just great. You wouldn’t think that that patch had rot in there. And what I mean is some of his rotten taro was still in that patch and he planted that huli. And it is coming out real good. Kelly Loo had some patches he planted. Because just came out like they had fertilizer growing in there. But actually he didn’t use fertilizer, but that thing just fine. So I figured there’s a change in the weather pattern.
VL: The temperature of the . . .
RK: Could be the temperature. Probably there’s something in the whole thing about temperature and the whole weather thing, the whole pattern. Weather pattern changing, you know, gradually. You see, when I see all these different taro fields where they had rotten taro start coming out good. There’s always like a feeling that it’s coming back like the old times again. I don’t see Kelly using fertilizer but he’s certainly doing good. Of course, Toledo uses fertilizer but at least I can say, I can look at his field and just say, “God.” That taro patch had all that rot inside and he didn’t even take that rotten taro out. He just planted that huli in there. So something must be helping that huli to grow good. Over at Toledo’s, over at Kelly’s. So I just figure, well, the weather had something to do with that. If the doctors cannot find what’s wrong with the water, with the soil, then I guess the weather has something to do with it. So actually, I don’t know. Somebody say because of the type of fertilizer they using now that’s protecting the taro from rot. I think that rot thing is just about over.
VL: So you think the future looks pretty bright?
RK: Yeah. For taro growers. But for the people, like Waipi‘o, they have three sections. The lower part, the center and inland one. The people who probably come last to realize the good crop may be the ones down there. But these people up here, largely getting to the center people where the taro is growing good now. I’m pretty sure that the people above probably going to have good crop too.
VL: And why is it that the lower people will be the last to have better crops?
RK: Their water is more sort of stagnant than up here. Up here more running water and cool. The water more cold. Down there water warm and sort of stagnant.
VL: How do you think the future of the valley looks, as a whole?
RK: Well, I can’t see a bright future for Waipi‘o. I mean, how many taro farmers are young enough to carry on? Most are the age where they’re about ready to take pensions or take Social Security. I don’t think these young guys like to come down and take care. I mean very few, if any. You know, it takes people to make the valley growing, keep the valley growing. But if you don’t have ’em, how would you?
VL: How about these young haoles? Farming.
RK: Probably if they wanted to get into it, maybe they could. Like this other, that boy down there, Bill. He tries and he selling his taro. I mean, you get the other guys trying they probably can. But how many of them would be willing to go into taro?
VL: So the main problem in the future would be laborers?
RK: Labor. Yeah. People.
VL: How long will you continue to grow?
RK: I don’t know. This new thing that came out. About Bishop Museum having ideas about the growers, the people plant taro. Well, if I had a piece of that, I might be able to continue raising taro. But I’ve been under this sharecropping thing too long. And you can’t make money if you just have your small space, you raising one small space. You can’t make money.
VL: So are you thinking about getting land of your own?
RK: Yeah. If I can get more space of my own then I’ll probably continue planting taro. But other than that, like it remains to be seen. I don’t care to go sharecropping anymore. That’s why I'm not taking out a big place. I did that once and I just. God, I almost took . . .
RK: Yeah I was taking care of three places that year up here. That’s about what, about five acres. But only about maybe 2-1/2 acres in taro. Then I had the other one right down here. That’s another about maybe acre and a half. And I had another one way down. I was keeping three places.
VL: All sharecrop?
RK: Sharecrop, yeah. Yeah, I made money. I made little bit money. But I just had to work myself down to the, you know.
VL: So you would need land that is all in one place?
RK: Yeah. Well, you see, even if you get land all in one place, it has to be your lease. No such thing as sharecropping. Then you can realize the whole thing is yours. But if you go sharecropping, in other words, you working, 30 percent of your job is for the landowner. But if you had your own lease, you realize 100 percent. I’d like to continue taro business if I knew I would get 100 percent of the take from whatever I grow.
VL: Seven or six years ago, when you moved back in to the valley . . . well, what does Waipi‘o mean to you?
RK: It meant a place to stay, a place to work. It meant a place to make your living. But today, I have different ideas about what Waipi‘o means to me. A place to find myself spiritually. I don’t know. I think it comes to an age where the bright lights or whatever outside places doesn’t mean much to you except try to find yourself inwardly. And that can only go as far as the spiritual side, your spiritual side. Which is like, if you can find peace and calm you can find yourself. That’s the whole concept of . . . . Look into your spiritual side. So age has something to do with your outlook towards life, you know, in later part of your years. Even now, I wonder why, what people go through, hey are they going through these things. That’s some of the strange things I see going around here. I am at that age where they are. I mean this gap between . . . . I see things different from the way they see things.
VL: You seem to have a lot of contact with the young newcomers. How do you feel about their moving into the valley and living here?
RK: I think their coming here . . . I don’t know, it doesn’t disturb me a bit. It seems like they’re always moving, so when they stop, that’s when you start. Then you can really, see, probably make up your mind what’s happening. But other than that, they just keep moving. Just like you can’t keep up with them, these young people. One day they’re here, one day they’re there, one day they’re all over the place. So I don’t think much about them establishing themselves down here. But the thing is, you never know. If they have a good leader, they might. Some good leader that they can look up too, they might. That’s the way I see how things are going now. Like I just had this thing with Tom not very long ago. He said he doesn’t want new people coming in. And I said, “But you advertise. You advertise by word of mouth how good Waipi‘o is. Naturally, you going to open up the flood gates.” But how can you stop it? You stop your mouth, you can stop the flooding of the valley. I said, “You better let this tourist bureau who sell all those Aloha Spirit thing to the tourists.” I said, “You probably better than them because you used to work in the advertising office.” So, well, he get among his own kind. And he just, “Oh, Waipi‘o is paradise,” and all that. Well, he’s been here, this side of the valley, longer than I have. By the six months. So I’ve been here 7-1/2, he’s been here 8 years. But still, the idea of saying he doesn’t want to many people down here, how can you stop ’em when you advertise Waipi‘o is a paradise and all that?
VL: Is there anything else that you want to say about Waipi‘o or your life or taro?
RK: No. Not much. What I’ve already said, that said it all. Except for this Bishop thing. If this thing go through, once again, I say I’d like to continue. But otherwise, I’ll be looking for Social Security as soon as I can. So other than that, what other way you can supplement your taro growing? Because other than that, I wouldn’t, I don’t care too much for this sharecropping. Here’s the thing. You figure guys paying like $36 an acre. That’s for taro land now days. All right, $36 an acre, you probably get 200 bags from an acre. That’s the minimum. Two hundred bags an acre, say $16 a bag. You end up with 32 . . .
RK: All the landowner paid was $36.
VL: And you get $1,000 or so?
RK: Yeah. And sharecropping, let’s say, that 200 bags. Thirty percent of that goes to the landowner. So you get 100 bags, that’s what. You only get about 70 bags. Two hundred bags, you only get 140 bags.