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The Last Taro Farmer

At 91, Uncle Nana Gorai has lived the life of the loi.

happy old man dressed in pastel orange shirt smiles at camera on a porch.

I'm in the bed of an old pickup, talking story with a couple of volunteers as we rattle off road into the wilderness of Kahana. We're welcomed by towering trees-mighty stands of koa and lauhala. As the road narrows the trees crowd in, and we duck to dodge the branches. 

In front of us is 91-year-old Clinton Kanahele Takanana Gorai, driving his blue truck along this access road that he partly constructed. He built it to get to his loi, a swath of taro patches that his father began farming a century ago. Today this group of volunteers is helping to clear some of the patches so they can be replanted.

Uncle Nana, as Gorai is affectionately known, was born in Kahana in 1932. The second youngest of eight, his five brothers and two sisters have all passed. They lived in a three-bedroom house with their parents, Lia Aleka and Tsuneiji Gorai, bunking together in the living room. There was no electricity-they lit kerosene lamps and cooked on a kerosene stove. They boiled hot water to shower.

taro farmers working on the farm with mountains in the distance.

“I just wanted to do something, and this is what I could think of. Worthwhile,” says Clinton Kanahele Takanana Gorai, a.k.a. “Uncle Nana,” seen above supervising volunteers who are helping him restore a loi (taro patch) in Kahana Valley, Oahu, which his father once tended. “I cleaned this whole place myself. I dug most of the loi all by myself. It’s hard work, but you gotta like what you do.” On page 54, Uncle Nana on the steps of the community center in Kahana. 

Tsuneiji Gorai had come from Fukushima, Japan, joining Chinese and Filipino immigrants who came to work the sugar plantation at Kahana. Many of them lived in Tanaka Camp on the south side of the Kahana River, where Trout Farm Road is today. A train delivered sugarcane from Kahana to the Kahuku Sugar Mill. Uncle Nana says the steam engine always stopped to refill at the same well from which his family drew water. He chuckles when he remembers hopping the cars with his friends in small-kid times. When Tsuneiji’s contract with the plantation was up, he became a taro farmer.

As Uncle Nana’s siblings grew, they moved out of the valley. Nana went to school—at Kaaawa Elementary, Hauula Elementary and then Kahuku High School—through tenth grade. He preferred to fish—in the bay and in the river. His father taught him how to farm taro, and their lifestyle epitomized that of old Kahana, a thriving fishing and farming community that supported some seven hundred people before Western contact.

“We more or less lived off the land. He had everything over here, what we needed,” Nana says of his father. “He planted vegetables and uala [sweet potato]. We also had chickens and ducks.” He describes how his father would harvest the taro himself, load a full burlap sack onto a pack board that he made out of lightweight hau branches, and muscle it a couple of miles down the trail to their house. “He would wash the taro, clean it up real good, and then put it in a big tub and cook it. He did that all outside,” Nana remembers. “Once the taro cooked, everyone in the whole family get out there and peel the taro, clean the taro. Then we pound the taro.”

older man in bright orange t-shirt sits outside on a wooden chair with the Hawaiian mountains and lush landscape in the background. close-up of freshly harvested taro in a farmer's hands.  
(LEFT) Nana looks out over Kahana, one of Hawaii’s few intact ahupuaa (traditional land divisions). (RIGHT) Taro huli (shoots) ready for planting.


His dad crafted a papa kui ai (poi pounding board) out of mango wood that he cut with a Japanese handsaw, and he also made pohaku (stone) pounders. One time, Nana grabbed his father's favorite pounder while his father was taking a break: "I put the taro on the board and pound, and the thing shoot out!" he recalls, squinting with laughter. "He get mad at me when he come back-'How come the taro all dirty?'" "When my dad was a taro farmer, he never did sell the taro," Nana says, explaining that it was for family and neighbors. He glances up as if picturing his father coming down the footpath with eighty pounds of taro on his back. "He do everything by himself. Nobody help him."

We sit on the wooden bench overlooking Nana's loi and take in the panorama-overlapping layers of greenery that stretch from the fields of taro below to the lush ferns in the back of the valley (where the average annual rainfall is three hundred inches) to old-growth ohia trees that blanket the 2,670-foot summit of Puu Pauao along the Koolau ridge. 

In his early 20s Nana fell in love with a Chinese-Hawaiian woman named Lorraine Aweau. They married and became a family of six, with three sons and a daughter. At the outbreak of World War II, Nana joined the Army; he was stationed in Germany when his mom died and then in Vietnam when his dad died. After twenty years in the service, he retired and returned to Oahu. He took a few odd jobs-parking cars, dishwasher, security guard-before he felt the call to return to his father's loi in Kahana. 

Much had changed while he'd been away. Between 1943 and 1947 the military conducted jungle warfare training in the valley, forcing many families to move, including Nana's. In 1969 the state acquired 5,249 acres of Kahana Valley, thwarting a proposal to turn it into a resort with a botanical garden, man-made lake and a thousand campsites. Instead, Kahana was to become a "living cultural park" to foster Native Hawaiian traditions. Families were allowed to stay in exchange for assisting with interpretive programs that promote Hawaiian values. Today Kahana remains one of Hawaii's few intact ahupuaa-a land division that extends from the mountaintop to the ocean-and is the second-largest state park in the Islands.

When Nana first went in search of their old farm lot, it was completely overgrown. "How I found this place was the big mango tree over there. That's where my dad used to put all of his bottles of sake after they were empty. He cannot throw the bottles any kine place, because he walked barefoot," Nana explains. "I found the mango tree, and I said, 'Oh, this is the place.'"

three farmers locate and harvest taro on their farmland.

“Even when my dad was a taro farmer, he never did sell the taro,” says Nana, seen here working with volunteers. “More or less live off the land. He had everything over here, what we needed.”


Nana went to work, single-handedly digging up the dirt and planting food. Initially he would make the trek to the loi on foot, wielding a power saw and a machete, accompanied only by his little dog, Puppy. His loi is currently divided into two rows of seven or eight patches. There's a tool shed where he can take cover from the rain. Water is delivered to each patch through PVC pipes that run downslope. Three of the patches have been recently replanted, but the banks of the others are barely discernible. "The stream is right down here," says Nana, pointing to thickets of unkempt bush. "Before, you could sit at this bench and look at the stream. Kahana, always rain. When the river flood, it brings all the dirt and covers all the loi. Now all the grass growing because I start not going there all the time. But it was nice and clear." 

We head down to the loi-at its peak, more than twenty patches, planted with huli (cuttings) gifted from others-along the narrow trail Nana cut. There are other farmers in the valley, he says, but he's the last one who's actually from Kahana. Nimble in his knee-high waders, he scrambles down the hill, occasionally grabbing a fixed rope for support. At the bottom a volunteer is weed-whacking; others are crouched in the mud, pulling stubborn tufts of weeds.

Besides taro, Uncle Nana also planted trees: ulu (breadfruit), starfruit, mango, star apple, soursop. He planted coconut along the riverbank in the hope that the root system would help mitigate erosion and flooding. "The reason why the water come up so high is because the river plug up. Over the years, nobody clean the river. When the water goes down and the river is plug up, the water gotta find a way, so it run out through the sides," he says, explaining that the plantation used to clear the debris because they needed water for sugarcane.   

Nana also planted flowers. They are bright and fragrant, adding color to the valley's muted palette of green: red ginger, pink ginger, red torch, pink torch, gardenia, kukunuokala and more. But they're for more than just vibrancy and scent. Every week, someone helps him cut blooms to bring to the cemetery. "I get twelve graves to put flowers," he says. All family."

When Nana was young, he and his friends trekked to the highest point they could reach by following the river. "I went all the way to see where the water coming. It's coming out from the mountain. Look like somebody dug a tunnel and there's water coming out-the water just flow over the years," he says. Seeing the source gave Nana a greater appreciation for the wai (fresh water), how indispensable it is to all the farmers below. "The main thing is water. You gotta have the water," he says. He explains that the Waialua auwai (irrigation channel) that once fed his loi was built by Chinese rice farmers. "That's how they brought the water from way up mauka all the way down here. They dug it out by hand, no machine."

taro farmer smiles as his team harvests the root in patches in the background.

"This was the crown jewel of Kahana," says former state senator Clayton Hee, whose district included the valley and who supported Nana's effort to restore some of these once-productive loi-at one time, more than twenty were in use. "It gives a visual understanding of Hawaiian people, no explanation required. All over here was kalo [taro]."  (BELOW)  "I hope they keep up with planting the taro," says Nana of the volunteers and others who've helped the now 91-year-old farmer reclaim his father's loi. "But not for commercial purposes."

hands passing taro root to another person while a person in the background wades in the mud.

The river itself was also a direct source of food-and a playground when Nana was growing up. "I do everything in the river! We used to catch mullet, Samoan crab, oopu [gobies], opae [shrimp], hihiwai [snails], prawn. Nowadays no more," he says. Fishing was a special passion he shared with his sons, two of whom are among the family Nana picks flowers for. In the bay, he would fish from his older brother's boat and lay net at night.

"Now when rain, I'm at home, patching my fishnet," he says. It's an art he's practiced for so long that he has lost sensation in two fingers and a thumb. "Every so often I get a group come by, and I teach them how to patch net. That thing is fading away."

"The truth is Uncle Nana is the clearest and best example in Kahana of 'Hawaiian culture' as intended when the state purchased Kahana as a cultural park in 1969," says former state senator Clayton Hee, whose district included this area. Hee remembers when the approximately twenty loi were planted, and Nana regularly taught school groups how to plant, harvest and cook taro. "This was the crown jewel of Kahana. It gives a visual understanding of Hawaiian people, no explanation required. All over here was kalo," Hee says, using the Hawaiian word for taro.

In May 2022 the community held its annual hukilau, a community gathering to haul in and share fish caught with a seine net. It was also the celebration of Uncle Nana's ninetieth birthday, and Hee was there. 

"How's the loi?" Hee asked, expecting Nana to answer, "Aw, you got to come see." Instead Nana said, "No more water."

"What you mean?" Hee asked incredulously. "The auwai [irrigation ditch] no more water," Nana repeated.

A few weeks later, Hee went to see for himself. The auwai was indeed dry, carpeted with dead leaves. The loi was overrun with weeds. In the following months, volunteers helped to clear the brush, dug a ditch to pull water directly from the stream and began replanting a few loi. The ditch is a temporary fix, says Hee. It can't handle winter floods, and it won't flow when rainfall is sparse in the summer. 

"Until the auwai is restored, we do the best we can with the help of young people who come when they can," Hee says. The Waialua auwai, he points out, appears on kuleana maps-lots that were identified following the Kuleana Act of 1850, which gave land tenure to Native Hawaiians. In other words, the auwai is a critical resource that has enabled Hawaiians to farm taro for more than 150 years.

Hawaii state senator Jarrett Keohokalole says that Nana has Native rights that are named in the Hawaii Constitution. "The state has an obligation to ensure that traditionally existing auwai and traditionally existing taro cultivation are allowed to continue," he says. "The state needs to take action to fix it." The State Department of Land and Natural Resources did not respond to requests for comment.

A deficit of water is nothing new to Native taro farmers; large-scale ag operations have diverted the natural flow of streams since the plantation days. Fortunately, there have been proactive efforts-and court decisions-to set mandatory flows in areas of traditionally robust taro cultivation. In terms of food sustainability and cultural preservation, this is essential-especially since, despite a growing demand, taro farming has declined year after year.

Among the trees in Kahana is where Uncle Nana feels at home-in fact his name, Kanahele, means "the forest." He continues to farm and teach because he loves it. "I just wanted to do something worthwhile. I cleaned this whole place only by myself. I dug most of the loi all by myself," he says. "I hope it keeps going. I don't want this place to become a commercial thing for tourists to come up here and look."

Nana's hopes have been realized at least for those who come to work in the loi. "When I met Uncle Nana for the first time, he said, 'I'm Kahana, but you can call me Uncle Nana,'" says Cara Gutierrez, who came to volunteer with Chaminade University's sustainability council, which she founded during her senior year. By tending the land, she feels she's not only giving back but also honoring Uncle Nana. "From the stairs he built to the trees he's been surrounded by since he was a child, I feel lucky to experience a place that has deeply impacted his life. Being back there listening to the birds, the wind, the water, makes me feel like I'm coming home to myself. I feel like the best version of me when I'm there." 

For Nana, as for his father, growing taro was never a commercial enterprise. It was all for family and community. "I never did sell taro. I never, never did," he says. "All I did was give it to the people who come and help."

Story By Catharine Lo Griffin

Photos By PF Bentley

V26 №4 June - July 2023