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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Posted on: Wednesday, February 3, 2010

6 Maui ranches join forces to sell grass-fed beef

 • Beef, au naturel


Third annual Maui County Agricultural Festival

9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 3, Waikapu

Educational demonstrations, cooking contests, entertainment, grown-on-Maui marketplace and more.

Grass-fed beef will be featured in one of 12 chef-grower partnerships in a Taste Education event; chef Peter Merriman teams up with Alex Franco of Maui Cattle Co.

Information and tickets for the Taste Education event: www.mauicountyfarmbureau.org

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Alex Franco has been in ranching all his life, for many years at Maui's Kaupo Ranch and now as president of Maui Cattle Co., a partnership that markets the products of the Valley Isle's six largest ranches under a single label.

His perspective is long and informed. And he is hopeful that, despite many roadblocks, the industry can band together to assure that Island-raised, grass-fed, natural beef will be available to consumers who want it, and that ranching will be a commercially viable business.

Maui Cattle Co. is an example of how that can work. The six ranches, all family-owned and independent, created the consortium in 2002. The cattle are fed a diet of tropical grasses supplemented by sugar cane tops. Today, their beef is available in more than 90 outlets on the Valley Isle and is served in restaurants such as Alan Wong's and Roy's. It also can be ordered online for shipping by mail (go to http://MauiCattleCompany.com).

Together, the six ranches comprise more than 60,000 acres with each ranch having its own personality, and its own place in the partnership. Haleakalā Ranch is the largest and oldest (founded in 1888), with 30,000 acres on the slopes of the mountain that gives the operation its name.

Nobriga Ranch, in Kahakuloa, is the smallest, with just 73 head, but its owners also operate a feedlot and manage the sugar cane program.

Franco said the industry has changed very rapidly here, not once, but twice.

"If we go back in time, pretty much all the cattle raised in Hawai'i stayed here and were fed out at a couple of O'ahu feedlots and processed by companies on O'ahu," he said.

Then, about 25 years ago, when vacuum sealing and better refrigeration and shipping techniques were developed, Mainland beef began to flood the local market, undercutting prices and putting local purveyors out of business.

Ranchers went to Plan B, at that time a commercially viable option: Shipping live cattle — young, weaned calves — to the Mainland for slaughtering there. Island-raised beef became more and more scarce here.

But in the late '80s and early '90s, Franco said, the steep costs of shipping began to eat into this approach's profits. Also, he said, consumers became interested in natural products and "eating local." Ranchers once again eventually adapted, developing various models for grazed beef operations.

There's a certain romance to the vision of a paniolo ridin' easy, herding contented cattle across an emerald pasture with Haleakalā in the background. The reality is something else.

Good grass depends on water.

"We raise our cattle in a good environment. We can put on weight and we can take our cattle to market," said Franco.

But when dry periods hit, cattle won't thrive. Yet, consistent supply is important to buyers.

Next is what many consider Island ranching's key problem: processing the cattle once the animals are ready for market.

In a report on the "Hawai'i Slaughter and Processing Network," Glen K. Fukumoto, of the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, wrote that slaughterhouses are highly regulated and costly to operate, and a number of them are struggling or have failed. But without such plants, Island beef is stuck out on the range.

It might seem logical, Franco said, for there to be one large slaughterhouse to serve all the ranches, but the cost of transporting cattle between the Islands makes that unfeasible.

"What makes the most sense is that there would be a slaughter and processing operation on each of the islands and the cattle to support (these businesses)," he said. "The industry is working on it."

Franco said ranchers need to address the consumer who tries grass-fed beef once, has a bad experience, and never tries it again. He said Hawai'i brands are beginning to distinguish themselves one from the other.

"So don't be discouraged. Go out and try another one. Give it a fair shot."

The industry's goal, he said, is not to supply all the beef consumed in the Islands — that's impossible. Fukumoto's report estimates that, between residents and visitors, the demand for beef here is about 91.2 million pounds a year.

"If we kept all the cattle in the state of Hawai'i here, we would only supply 20 to 25 percent of the market," Franco said. "That would still be a major accomplishment."

Franco said it will take time, but with strategic planning, study, partnerships and dialogue, the industry is working on all these concerns.

"We're in the growing stages," he said.