Researching Colocasia esculenta (aka Taro) in the Southeast as a Sustainable and Alternate Crop

Project Overview

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2022: $20,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Grant Recipient: The Utopian Seed Project
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Chris Smith
The Utopian Seed Project


  • Vegetables: taro


  • Crop Production: crop improvement and selection, varieties and cultivars

    Proposal abstract:

    Our solution to a lack of diversity, and therefore resilience, in our food systems is a multi-level project to identity, research and introduce new crops* to both the farmers and the marketplace. This solution is in direct alignment with the EPA’s 2017 report on Climate Impacts in the Southeast, which states, “Dominant adaptation strategies include altering local planting choices to better match new climate conditions.” (1) The Utopian Seed Project, whose mission is to celebrate diversity in food and farming through crop and variety trials in the Southeast, has experimented with many crops and has identified taro (Colocasia esculenta) to take forward into larger on farm trials and outreach. Taro is well known across the world as a staple food crop (2). We have been growing taro as a food crop at our experimental farm in WNC for the last three years, and before that one of our board members, Yanna Fishman, had been conducting her own research with a number of Aroids, including Xanthosoma sagittifolium and multiple varieties of Colocasia esculenta. This initial vetting process has allowed us to establish that: 

    1. We are capable of producing taro sustainably in open field production in our region (meaning without the need for additional energy inputs for heat or light, and under organic conditions). This observation has been supported in a study from India, which concluded, “The yield under organic management at farm level was higher by 29 per cent. Organic farming proved to be an eco-friendly alternative to conventional farming in taro for stable yield and quality cormels as well as for maintaining soil health.” (3)
    2. We are able to grow and save our own ‘seed’ stock in our region. Taro is grown from a clonal propagation of its own corms or eddoes in much the same way as potato tubers. They can be stored over the winter and sprouted the following year. Regionally produced seed stock is a critical component to regional sustainability - growing taro as seed stock also represents an additional market opportunity for farmers. 
    3. There is potential to grow taro as a perennial food crop in our region, which would work well for leaf production models. Taro is grown and consumed as a leaf vegetable in a number of different countries, specifically in Ghana and Pacific Island Nations. The leaves have high protein content and we have seen some success with both leaf and corm harvest in the same season. 
    4. Taro is capable of producing impressive yields of edible ‘potato-like’ corms which store well and taste great. We have recorded an average yield of 6lbs per plant which is comparable to potatoes, this has not been assessed in replicated field trials and only covers a single variety, ‘Korean Taro’.
    5. There is culinary/consumer interest in taro as a food crop. We conducted a public taste test and taro was well received at our ‘Experimental Roots’ tasting event in 2019 and we have used taro successfully in a number of dinners that we have hosted for the general public in 2021 (including taro chips, whipped taro, taro hash browns, and steamed taro). Samples have also been shared with our chef network with much interest.
    6. There are many market opportunities for taro, which include cultural food traditions found across most tropical regions of the world, as well as regional assimilation into existing food systems and culture. We have worked with Michael Carter of Carter Farms who is growing our taro for its edible greens. See his video explaining Cocoyam and Nkontomarie. Also, Brandon Ruiz of Yucayeke Farms has been growing our taro to serve ethnic groups in the Charlotte region. In the last year we have encouraged a number of farmers to grow taro and in 2021 one farmer started supplying a number of local food coops. We also partnered with the student farm at Elon University, who grew taro and supplied it to their university dining program. The dining program is managed by Harvest Table and there is considerable interest in integrating diverse food cultures, which could have broader food systems impact for crops like taro. 

    Everything we have learned about growing taro in Western NC suggests that it is a crop with a lot of potential to address the problems of food security in a warming climate. The next step is to take our internal research and knowledge of the crop and our initial momentum to on farm research trials and then expand community outreach and engagement. This will allow us to support more farmers in growing taro as an additional and climate resilient crop, while also generating demand in the food system for the alternative crop. 

    * Note: we use the term new, knowing that taro is not a new crop and has a long cultural history in other regions and sometimes in the Southeast. A USDA pamphlet published in 1910 and titled Promising Root Crops of the South included taro as one of those crops (4).

    1. Howden, S. M., Soussana, J.-F., Tubiello, F. N., Chhetri, N., Dunlop, M., & Meinke, H. (2007). Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(50), 19691–19696.
    2. Palanisamy, P., Bakthavatchalam, P., Karthikeyan, M., Gnanasekaran, A., Ms, R., Dr. r., Ts, G., Gk, C., Basalingappa, K., & Nataraj, R. (2018). Taro (Colocasia esculenta): An overview. Journal of Medicinal Plants Studies, 6 (4), 156-161.
    3. Suja, G., Byju, G., Jyothi, A. N., Veena, S. S., & Sreekumar, J. (2017). Yield, quality and soil health under organic vs conventional farming in taro. Scientia Horticulturae, 218, 334–343.
    4. Bureau of Plant Industry, Barrett, O. W., & Cook, O. F., Promising Root Crops for the South (1910). Washington, D.C.; G.P.O.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    Our approach to introducing taro as a mainstream crop in the Southeast is necessarily multi-leveled because there are many elements of a food system that need to be activated for the widespread adoption of a previously underutilized food source. At its core, our approach requires primary hands in the dirt research to fuel authentic and creative interaction with a community of engaged stakeholders. We will conduct a series of on farm trials to gain a broad scientific base of knowledge, and then use that knowledge for community and farmer outreach. This approach allows for farmers to confidently grow an emerging crop while building market demand for that crop. 


    Taro (Colocasia esculenta) has a long and rich history of cultivation in over 40 countries (1). Internally we have identified 3 cultivars with promising culinary and agronomic traits (‘Korean’, ‘Hawaiian’, and ‘Filipino’). There are hundreds of accessions available across the world, although not all tropical cultivars are readily adapted to our temperate growing conditions. The first component of our research will be to explore a larger set of available germplasm. Lee One Fortune Farm will offer a couple of cultivars and we have farmer connections in Florida to supply some additional cultivars. Michael Carter will also seek to source some African-origin cultivars. Our aim is to have approximately 8 cultivars in our first stage variety trial.   

    Y1: Multi-farm Variety Trial: Each of the three trial sites (Utopian Seed Project, Carter Farms and Old North Farm) will grow all 8 cultivars in randomized complete block design with two replications at each farm. The aim is to seek observational data such as corm color (specific markets have certain corm color preferences), corm/cormel formation, nutritional and oxalate analysis on corms and leaves, and some initial yield data. 

    Growing a wide diversity of cultivars allows us to visually document these varieties, which will be important for future outreach. We will also pay close attention to potential invasiveness of these cultivated taros, drawing a strong distinction between wild and cultivated forms of Colocasia esculenta. In addition to the observable traits, we will also lab test samples of each variety for calcium oxalate levels - this is the compound that makes taro inedible as a raw ingredient. Cooking renders taro edible, but an important trait of culinary taros is lower levels of calcium oxalate. 

    Y1/2: Tasting and Culinary: In collaboration with Chef Ashleigh Shanti ,we will use the opportunity of growing multiple varieties to host a culinary evaluation and taro cooking event which will allow us to reach out to culinary professionals as well as general consumers. Our history with culinary evaluations has led to a multi-level approach. We apply keyword analysis, elimination taste testing, and Likert scale ratings using the SeedLinked platform. It’s important that this type of evaluation include chefs of different backgrounds who have cultural connections to taro. 

    Y2: On Farm Crop Budget - each of the cooperating farmers will put one or two varieties of taro into their crop plan for 2023 and track time and expenditure and income on each variety to create an estimated crop budget for taro. We will document each farmer and use these as case studies in our outreach.  

    Y2: Small Agronomic Trials to quantitatively answer some cultivation questions. We will use our ‘Korean Taro’ as a consistent variety because it is well known to us. Each of these trials will be set up as randomized complete block design with three replications and various treatments as listed below. The Utopian Seed Project will run this trial at their experimental farm site with the help of a dedicated research assistant to monitor the trials consistently. We consult with Jay Bost, who has taro and trialing expertise, to ensure the trial designs and analysis suit our desired outcomes.  

      • The effect of type-of-propagation material on yield

        • Treatments: Whole planted cormel; Whole planted mother corm; Sliced top of mother; Sliced top of cormel. 
        • Aim is to assess the best method and to assess the market opportunity of selling edible taro material and attaining propagation material from the same cormel or mother.  
      • The effect of size-of-propagation material on yield

        • Treatments: Propagation material will be graded into small, medium and large. This planting will use whole cormels as propagation material. 
        • Aim is to assess the type of propagation material that should be held back for future plantings and therefore what type of material will be available for market. 
      • The effect of planting time on yield
        • Treatments: Transplants sprouted April 1, transplanted May 15; Direct planting April 15; Direct planting May 15. 
        • The aim is to assess the optimum planting schedule for best results and minimum time in the field.  
      • The effect of field moisture on yield
        • Treatments: Non-irrigated; Irrigated with average irrigation; Irrigated with heavy irrigation. 
        • Aim is to assess the need for irrigation practices and the effect of dry farming.  
      • The effect of leaf harvest on yield
        • Treatments: No leaf harvest; Light leaf harvest; Heavy leaf harvest.
        • Aim is to assess the potential of taro as a dual harvest crop.
      • The effect of harvest time on yield 
        • Treatments: Early harvest (August); Mid-harvest (September); Late-harvest (October).
        • Aim is to assess how early a farmer can harvest taro without significant losses in yield. 

    These smaller trials will answer many of the common questions we have for growing taro outside of the tropics. We have learned that some of the cultivation practices that have been researched previously simply don’t apply to our attempts at growing taro in Western NC and elsewhere in the upper Southeast.

    1. Hard, L.-J. (2015, February 28). Everything You Need to Know About Taro. Food52. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.