Taro has been a staple in Hawaiian food for generations. Native birds love to eat it as well but some Kauai farmers say there's not enough to go around.
Farmers say the nene or Hawaiian Goose eats the root. And the Hawaiian Moorhen and Hawaiian Coot eat the stalk and leaf. Since last year farmers say they've lost up to half a million pounds of kalo or taro.
"I really want to apologize to the taro eating community. The farmers are trying to resolve this solution but if we don't I don't want to scare them but there is going to be some kind of adjustment," said Rodney Haraguchi, Kauai Taro Growers Association President and Hanalei Valley taro farmer on the refuge property.
That means a possible shortage and or a price spike for food like poi and laulau.
"Right now I'm feeling like the Hawaiians are endangered because those things that we are now protecting are now eating our food supply," said Haunani Pacheco, who says her family has been farming taro for 100 years.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife says the land has been a wildlife refuge since 1972. Farmers knew when they signed the permit the land is for the birds and some degradation is possible. That is also why the farmers that live on the land don't pay any rent. They pay just $25 a year per acre to use the land to plant their crops.
"Some financial allowance has been made for that since day one," said Barry Stieglitz, Refuge Supervisor for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
"Yes their lease rent is inexpensive. But if you consider the work they do here we owe a debt of gratitude to farmers," said Pacheco. "I think the government should be paying them to take over this property because they are not even able to maintain this land and our farmers have been able to."
Stieglitz is not sure the birds are the root of the problem. He says there are other issues like leaf blight, invasive insects like the apple snail and the severe flooding earlier this year.
"I'm not sure we can point to any one thing and say this is responsible for this apparently unprecedented level of crop loss," said Stieglitz.
Still they are looking into solutions like a fence to keep the birds out of crops or planting other native plants the birds like more.
"We can't have one part of this heritage winning out over the other we have to move forward in a balanced way. Everything needs to be pono," said Stieglitz. "The real trick is to balance these things because we are at a wildlife refuge that is there for the birds and we can't do anything by law that is detrimental to the birds nor do we want the farmers to suffer unduly either."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is in the middle of preparing a management plan for the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge and fencing could be an option. However it still may not come fast enough for the farmers.
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