Ranchers challenged to keep beef on-island

The challenge facing the Big Island beef industry these days has as much to do with keeping the meat here as it does with raising it.


The challenge facing the Big Island beef industry these days has as much to do with keeping the meat here as it does with raising it.

Beef prices are at an all-time high on the mainland, and it makes sense economically for ranchers to ship their animals to the West Coast, industry experts say.

With drought gripping mainland production regions, beef is fetching about $2.25 a pound for the rancher. Compare that to $1.50 to $1.65 — the price Hawaii ranchers get when they sell their meat locally.

What ends up happening is some ranchers “commit from the heart” to dedicate a portion of their herds to meat that remains in Hawaii, even though they would profit more from shipping it to the mainland, said Glen Fukumoto, a Kainaliu-based extension agent for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

“A small portion of their cattle will always remain here, but it’s a challenge,” said Fukumoto, addressing a room of chefs and culinary students.

His talk was part of the 19th annual Taste of the Hawaiian Range and Agricultural Festival at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, an event he helped found.

Beef is a $46 million industry in Hawaii, and 76 percent of those cattle are here on the Big Island. Recent consumer trends toward local, organic and healthy meats have put the local grass-fed beef industry in growth mode since the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, 60 to 70 percent of local beef is shipped out of state. Although Hawaii ranchers are skilled stewards of the land, current infrastructure can’t support much increased production in the short term, Fukumoto said. High water costs and development pressures also work against ranchers.

“Land, water and financing is what they need,” said Fukumoto in an interview. “There is 200 years of experience here. Long-term leases are key.”

To fill the void, grass-fed beef from New Zealand and Australia is shipped in at lower costs, and conventional feed-lot beef is imported from the mainland, said rancher Jeri Moniz, who runs cattle on leased land in Kalopa.

“For the sake of sustainability, we’d like to keep everything here, but how do you do that financially?” Moniz asked. “All of us ranchers would like to keep our cattle here, but we can’t.”

Less than 9 percent of beef consumed in the state is local. Even if all of the beef produced in Hawaii stayed here, it would meet less than 40 percent of demand, Fukumoto said.

But beef wasn’t the only thing on the menu at Friday’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range. Thirty top chefs from around Hawaii whipped up tantalizing preparations of pasture-raised pork, lamb, goat and wild pig, augmented by local fruits, vegetables, honey and spices. Herds of participants grazed on island meats prepared in myriad ways, rubbed elbows and talked story with ranchers, chefs and other producers of local grinds.

New this year was the pairing of chefs with ranchers and farmers at cooking stations where their products were prepared and discussed. The arrangement was designed to foster dialog between food producers, preparers and consumers, Moniz said.

Paired with Kahua Ranch and Robb Farms of Waimea to make chuck roast into a delectable treat, The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii banquet chef Kevin Shikami dished up the roast after several days of curing, three hours of smoking, three days of slow brazing, and a rub with pastrami spices. On the side: fresh beets with passion fruit vinaigrette.

“Chuck roast is not generally considered tender,” Shikami said. “But when you cut it, it looks like it’s medium rare and its really tender. When you cook it right, I will take it over anything.”

Shikami, who has cooked extensively on the mainland, said he can always tell the Big Island beef.

“It’s a meatier, more pronounced flavor because of the volcanic soil.”

In her second year at Taste of the Hawaiian Range, Anna Peach displayed heirloom varieties of squash that she researches and “troubleshoots” on her quarter-acre farm in Waimea.

“I’m really a foodie who was raised on a farm,” said Peach, whose squash must be strong against pests and diseases and also extremely flavorful.


“I’m here as much to inspire chefs as to network with them,” she said.

Email Bret Yager at byager@westhawaiitoday.com.

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