The high cost of feeding their animals has been a perennial issue for dairy and meat producers in Hawaii, who largely import animal feed from the mainland. But the pandemic upended shipping routes leading to shortages and delays.

“Within two days there was no animal feed at any feed store in the state and we realized we were dependent totally on the mainland until the next boat came in,” said Mike DuPonte, a recently retired agriculture expert at the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Hawaii Grown

Even many pig farmers in Hilo, who fed their hogs mainly with food scraps from restaurants and hotels, suffered when tourism largely stopped and restaurants closed.

“The animals were starving,” DuPonte said. “We promised right then that this was something that would never happen again in this state.”

Motivated by the overwhelming need for local feed and a growing interest in food security, a group of farmers, entrepreneurs and researchers used the pandemic to experiment, and by the end of the year dairy and meat producers on the Big Island should be able to buy local feed made from invasive plants.

The latest episode of Civil Beat’s agriculture podcast, “Hawaii Grown,” visits the University of Hawaii’s feed mill in Hilo to learn more about the experiment.

“With any luck, we’ll be moving on ahead and trying to ease up one of the biggest challenges for our livestock producers,” said Nicholas Krueger, an instructor of Integrated Crop Livestock Systems at UH Hilo. 

Trash To Treasure

Back in 2018 Pomai Freitas was brainstorming with some coworkers about possible uses for gorse, a thorny, aggressive invasive plant covering hundreds of acres across the Big Island, including many acres on Mauna Kea.

“We were first looking at turning it into biochar but then because there’s so much of it on the Mauna we thought, ‘why not food?’” he said. “We tried everything you could think of, spaghetti, pancakes, but that really didn’t work, so we can try animal feed.”

Freitas is the president of Hui Hoolako, a nonprofit focused on preserving Hawaiian homelands. The group partnered with UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture to use its state-of-the-art feed mill to grind the gorse into pellets.

“The mill has only been used for small research trial purposes but it can handle commercial loads, it’s only about 10 years old,” DuPonte said.

Share your insights

The university has been experimenting and has created a whole host of options — steamed, flaked, rolled, pelleted — and is using the goats and pigs that live at the Hilo facility as taste testers to tweak the formula. Nicholas Krueger, an instructor of Integrated Crop Livestock Systems at UH Hilo who has been working on the project, said their studies found that the feed is high in fiber and protein and, so far, the animals seem to like it.

“With any luck, it’ll be good enough feed for the animal to substitute at least a portion of the diet,” he said. “But we have to make sure the animals like it first.”

Nicholas Krueger checks on some pigs at the University of Hawaii’s farm in Hilo. 

Challenges

The first animal palatability study should be finalized before the end of the year, which will answer the demand side of the equation. As far as supply goes, Krueger doesn’t anticipate Hawaii running out of gorse anytime soon.

“On some parts of the mountain we have a 15- to 20-foot canopy of this material that a mongoose could hardly get through,” he said.

More than 30,000 acres are infested with gorse on the Big Island alone. The thorny plant is known for its delicate yellow flowers and its ability to choke out all other plants in the area. The biggest challenge for the project is not where to take the plant from, but how.

“Making sure that we don’t inadvertently spread the gorse is a big priority,” Krueger said.

A single gorse plant can produce up to 18,000 seeds so the group experimented with a lot of different ways to kill the seeds before transporting any gorse off the mountain; they found that grinding the gorse very finely was the best bet, and so they keep their grinders on the mountain.

“As of today we can probably clear one to three acres a day,” Freitas said. “With the right funding, we could get up to eight acres a day.”

Although the flowers are beautiful, the thick thorns make gorse difficult to remove. Courtesy: David Parker

An Investment In Sustainability

Transporting any invasive species is risky and bringing workers and equipment to high elevations and then trucking the ground gorse to the Hilo grain mill is costly and time intensive.

Freitas said that once they finalize their formula and start mass-producing the feed they’ll find a business model that works for them and local farmers. Ideally, they’ll be financially independent, but grants focused on invasive species removal could help them bridge any gaps.

“We’re not trying to be the biggest feed producer in the world,” he said. “We’re doing this with and for the community with sustainability in mind.”

Providing a local alternative to imported feed could reduce not only carbon emissions related to imported feed, but also increase the amount of dairy and meat produced in the state.

“Processing and transportation is our bottleneck — guaranteed — but the cost of feed is so expensive now that it doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult for that material to hit a price point that would be better,” Krueger said.

“Not going to sit here and peddle something if it doesn’t work and that’s exactly what we’re fixing to find out.”

"The pandemic has affected our business in a huge way, and it's actually very lovely, believe it or not."
— Sharon Peterson Cheape

Silver Linings

Peterson's Upland Farm has gone through a lot of changes since its founding in 1910, but Sharon Peterson Cheape could have never guessed what would come out of the pandemic.

Listen to Audio

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

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