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LIHUE, Kauai — Bobby Farias tosses a sack of cattle feed — treats for animals who mainly eat grass — over his shoulder, swings open a gate and walks out into a pasture about 10 minutes away from the Lihue airport.
Thirty to 40 cows start to take notice as Farias walks slowly, quietly intoning: “Come girls. Come, come.”
Each animal has a numbered tag stuck in each ear. They look calm, well fed and content as they approach Farias and munch at the treats he trails on the ground. They are treated gently, walked slowly and taken care of well.
All of them, Farias says, will head to a slaughterhouse on Oahu early next week.
Scenes like this one are being replicated daily on Kauai, where with little notice, the beef (and, for that matter, lamb and pork) industry is expanding, lifted by the improved quality of its offerings and a growing preference for local, fresh food.
The island has three slaughterhouses and a couple of meat-processing facilities. There is talk of a fourth facility. There are at least five large cattle ranching operations, supported by dozens of smaller farms that deliver about 10 head every few weeks to larger ranches.
Farias’s company, Kunoa Cattle, operates on Oahu and Kauai. But it is on isolated, still rustic Kauai that expansion of this local food industry is most visible to tourists and locals who drive by ever-larger grazing herds.
Farias and other cattlemen and — in the case of Princeville Ranch on the North Shore, a cattlewoman — say it is part of a quiet evolution toward what could become food self-sufficiency. That’s a ways off, since even the expanding industry won’t be big enough to displace mainland beef producers in supermarkets anytime soon.
Right now, Kauai grass-fed beef is a niche product, mostly sold at farmers markets, featured at certain restaurants and found in the far corners of a few supermarket meat cases.
What’s driving the change, Farias said, is a shift away from the traditional practice of raising calves on Kauai, then shipping them to mainland feed lots to fatten and returning them to Hawaii for slaughter and distribution.
It’s what he calls “a cow-calf operation. It existed because it was actually cheaper to send cattle to the mainland to gain weight and because there wasn’t enough slaughter and processing capacity here.”
A growing number of Kauai cattle operations, including Kunoa and Makaweli Meat Co. have moved away from the old system and now keep their herds in the grassy pastures — formerly sugar plantation land — from birth to slaughter. In their marketing, these ranchers have begun to emphasize their natural approaches, “without antibiotics, growth hormones or steroids,” in Makaweli’s words.
“What’s changing is there is a hell of a lot of land available” on Kauai, Farias said, much of which has been fallow for decades. But the grass that grows on the acreage is ideal for raising cattle. “There aren’t a lot of conventional crops that can cover the costs of reclaiming the land,” he said.
The large ranches on Kauai together cover more than 6,000 acres now and large landowners like Grove Farm, from which Kunoa leases its grazing acreage, are increasingly looking to put the land into production of some kind. Cattle, Farias said, “are a mobile crop. They can go anywhere on the island, at any time.”
Where ranchers used to raise calves and sell them to distributors who sent them to California feedlots, economics dictate today that the ranches seek the greatest certainty in pricing at the wholesale level, which means they need a more precise sense of what a calf just born on Kauai will be worth when it’s ready for harvest in more than a year.
It’s what Farias called “betting long on that animal.”
Farias said Kunoa Cattle has a slightly different vision than other Kauai ranches, which have augmented decades-old slaughter facilities with more modern onsite processing plants. Kunoa envisions the statewide beef industry settling on Oahu as the hub, with slaughter and processing consolidated there.
That would help local ranchers overcome the challenge of going to scale, a key barrier to the larger retail economy at supermarkets and places like Costco.
“The economics in this business have really changed in the last 10 years,” Farias said. Though cattle ranching and sugar coexisted for decades, “cattle always got the least desirable land.” With the sugar plantations gone and other farming uses slow to replace them, cattle now graze on better-quality pastures.
Colby Ayonon runs an air conditioning business in Kapaa, but his family has raised cattle for generations in Wailua. He said there are still many barriers to the levels of profitability that will be necessary to sustain Kauai beef in the long term.
“It’s a kind of cocktail of issues,” Ayonon said. “We have high real estate. We have trouble being competitive. Our government costs a lot. The whole resistance is real estate on Kauai. Rarely you’ll find a farmer that owns a property they’re grazing on.”
Adam Watten is a distributor for Wailua Meat Co. products, mainly at farmers markets, though he stocked them at a retail location he operated for a while in Kapaa.
“Our local beef traditionally did not have a great reputation,” he said. “That had to do with the way it was being processed due to a lack of proper facilities. The market has changed. People want healthy products and there’s a higher demand now for local meats.”
How and when that can translate into market penetration at places like Costco remains to be seen. Farias said local ranchers don’t yet have the capacity to assure a very large retailer of a consistent source of several hundred pounds of product every day. But, he said, that time may not be far off.
On the website for Kauai Grown, Duane Shimogawa, owner of A’akukui Ranch, touts the virtues of grass-fed Kauai beef as not just a healthier product. The program is a marketing effort sponsored by the Kauai County Farm Bureau and Kauai County government to push island products and brands into the broader food marketplace.
In a video, Shimogawa puts it succinctly: “Our cattle never leave the island of Kauai. You purchase a product that’s been produced here within a few days. Money is made here on Kauai and stays on Kauai. You’re supporting a local family that lives on Kauai.”
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