New dairy planned for Ookala site

  • Courtesy Stephanie Buck Chad and Stephanie Buck of Oahu recently purchased the assets of the former Big Island Dairy in Ookala.

A family with ties to the Big Island hopes to support sustainable agriculture with a new dairy operation in Ookala.

Chad and Stephanie Buck of Oahu recently purchased the assets of the former Big Island Dairy, which had been owned by Steve and Derek Whitesides since 2011 and was located on land leased from the state.

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“In December 2020, we discovered that the Big Island Dairy’s attempts to sell the dairy had been unsuccessful and that the facility and all assets had been scheduled for auction,” Chad Buck said in a letter provided to the Tribune-Herald.

The Bucks own and operate Hawaii Foodservice Alliance, a food distribution and logistics company that distributes dairy and bakery products to Hawaii’s grocers, clubs and convenience stores.

“Having recently experienced the food challenges that were exposed by COVID and Hawaii’s lack of sustainable agriculture, we believe that this processing equipment, infrastructure and farming equipment should be saved, repurposed where able, and used for the benefit of the community and Hawaii,” Chad Buck wrote.

Big Island Dairy owners announced in late 2018 that they would discontinue dairy and milk processing operations at the Hamakua property.

The closure came as part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2017 by citizen group Kupale Ookala and the Center for Food Safety alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

“Knowing the history of Big Island Dairy, we believe that this land needs to heal,” Buck wrote. “We feel that this land can be a special place that, when operated in harmony with the community, the environment, and the unique ecosystem of Ookala, could provide sustainable food and place of community for the surrounding area.

“We purchased the assets of the dairy and the transfer option for the land lease, because we feel that the existing infrastructure, when utilized in partnership with the community and stewarded with care, could be an important asset in Hawaii’s food security and sustainability.”

The Bucks are working with the state Department of Agriculture on a lease transfer application.

Chad Buck, however, said they’re “committed to not replicate the industrial-sized dairy operation of years past.”

“Clearly, an industrial dairy farm operation in Ookala was not suitable, but we hope to partner with Hawaii Island agriculture advocates to develop a sustainable and eco-friendly plan and operations to produce suitable products in the existing facilities,” Buck wrote in a followup email.

“Due to the history, topography, and location of the area, the number of dairy cattle would be limited. Current discussions are for a boutique, grass-fed operation with approximately 200 head, which is much lower than the 1,800-plus head during the Big Island Dairy time and also the 800 head during Island Dairy’s operation.”

The Bucks already have reached out to the Ookala community.

“We went in to this venture committed to working closely with the community,” Stephanie Buck said. “Having operations on all islands, we know that the long term success of any operation is dependent on being in harmony with the communities that we serve in. The first calls that we made were to Charlene Nishida and Genard Frazier of Kupale Ookala. We asked to meet with them, so that we could understand the concerns and needs of the community and the history of the site from the their perspective.”

They also have met with Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball regarding the project.

“I certainly support the food security that comes with having a local dairy, and I believe if it’s operated in the right way, with the right density of cattle, it can be an appropriate use of that land that is also environmentally sound and matches with the agricultural nature of the community,” Kimball told the Tribune-Herald. “The Bucks have been very good about reaching out and talking to both me and the community there that were interacting with the dairy in the past. It makes me optimistic about the outcome.”

The operation currently is named Hamakua Ag Works, but name brands will be added once production begins. The goal is to move into production in 2022.

In the interim, approximately 500 beef cattle were temporarily relocated to the dairy property from Parker Ranch in exchange for temporary pasture-management services after a wildfire destroyed more than 37,000 acres of the ranch’s grazing land.

Buck declined to comment on the purchase price of the assets and cost of the lease.

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According to the letter, Chad Buck has previously lived in Puna, where their older children were raised. A son and daughter still live and work on the Big Island.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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