Employees, supporters try to stave off Kauai poi mill closure

Published: May. 14, 2012 at 1:39 AM HST|Updated: May. 14, 2012 at 2:50 AM HST
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WAIMEA, KAUAI (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Makaweli Poi Mill has been operating in Waimea since 1993. But the company that owns and runs it says it will suspend those operations May 23rd. And at least one worker contends that it didn't have to happen.

Fifteen people work mostly part-time at the mill. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs assisted Hi'ipoi LLC in buying the mill in 2008. Hi'ipoi sent those workers a notice last week, telling them that it all could end soon.

"The mill operations were being suspended, the employees were being laid off, and the equipment would be looked at by some people, and that there's a change of operations due primarily to financial reasons," said Bryna Storch about the notice's contents. Storch has been the mill's manager since January, but described herself as a longtime consumer of Makaweli Poi.

The mill was started in part to help taro farming recover after crops were wiped out by Hurricane 'Iniki in 1992. It turns taro grown on six or seven West Kauai farms into taro chunks, poi and other taro products that are sold in stores.

Hi'ipoi said it had plans to increase taro and poi production, and therefore increase employment. But Storch said taro farming has actually decreased 50 percent, partially because of more flooding that wiped out crops, but also because older farmers have retired and haven't been replaced. She says it's because the company didn't follow through on its mission.

"There was never any program implemented to educate and support the young farmers, or to support the ongoing farmers, or to really bring the company into a fiscally stable place," Storch said.

Hi'ipoi's chief operating officer, Mona Bernardino, said it costs $100,000 a year to run the mill. She also said that the company had explained to farmers and staff last year that it wouldn't be able to sustain operations.

Bernadino said Hi'ipoi is talking with at least two non-profit groups about taking over the mill's operations, and has a $25,000 grant to help in the transfer.

Storch said she hasn't heard of any such discussions. She also maintains that Hi'ipoi had the funding to follow through on its original plans.

"It's amazing that in three years of mismanagement that has undone our cultural tradition for our community that has gone on for decades and generations," said Storch.

Supporters of the mill's workers have started a petition on the mill's Facebook page. There's also a community meeting planned Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the West Kauai Technology and Visitor Center in Waimea. Supporters also plan to attend an OHA community meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. at King Kaumualii Elementary School in Hanamaulu.

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