The fallow lands left behind by Hawai‘i’s defunct sugar plantations opened the door for cattle ranchers whose old traditions and new ideas could shape the future of island food.
Images by Josiah Patterson
“That’s a perfect cow right there,” says Bobby Farias, as he puts his pristine Ford half-ton in park and points out the driver-side window. “Look. Number 41, height is good, good back line, sort of compact, nice and tight.”
The cow whose twin ear tags read “41” is of the Black Angus breed, like most of the dozen or so grazers around her. The herd has been keeping pace with the truck as it ambles down the red-dirt road that rounds the perimeter of a sprawling grassland just upslope from Līhuʻe, Kauaʻi.
Farias has operated the Kunoa Cattle Company on these lands for nearly four years, but his roots here go much deeper. His grandfather once oversaw this area as manager of the Līhuʻe Plantation, which closed in 2000.
A year later, Grove Farm added the land to its massive Kauaʻi holdings, and let wild guinea grass take over—the kind Farias knew would produce world-class beef.
In 2004, Farias started leasing fallow parcels from Grove Farm, and raising calves on the hearty grass, before shipping them off to mainland buyers for grain or corn finishing and then slaughter. But the operation was “a double-edged sword,” as he is wont to say —cattle kept the land clear and productive, but the standard export model kept Kauaʻi dependent on the mainland for beef it could clearly produce itself.
In 2014, Farias was introduced to Florida transplant and eco-entrepreneur Jack Beuttell, who envisioned a vertically integrated cattle company that could keep its beef in Hawai‘i.
But Beuttell’s vision had a catch—it would require taking over the rundown slaughterhouse at Campbell Industrial Park on Oʻahu’s ‘Ewa plain.
“I was hell-bent on a slaughterhouse on Kauaʻi,” Farias says. “I’m from Kauaʻi. I do everything on Kaua‘i.”
But Beutell, who came equipped with master’s degrees in business administration and environmental management, and had formerly run sustainability programs for a multinational real estate firm, was convincingly pragmatic.
Oʻahu’s cost of power is significantly lower, and its customer base 15 times higher. Farias caved, and Kunoa was born.
Today, on Kunoa’s Līhuʻe land, the moans of bawling calves fill the air.
“We’re getting them weaned off their moms, quieted down, and then they’ll get kicked out [to pasture], and then brought back in to get shipped to the mainland,” Farias says. Kunoa itself is still being weaned off the cow-calf model, as it is called in the industry.
When Farias drives to the far side of the property, to the pasture where the ideal cow, Number 41, munches grass, he arrives at the dream represented by the Hawaiian word “kunoa,” meaning stand free. It is a dream of freedom from mainland buyers, antibiotics, foreign feed, chemical fertilizer, debt, and the fear of failure.
Farias and Beuttell believe that the best means of achieving independence is through the ranching model called holistic management, which involves rigorous rotational grazing of high-density herds on hearty grass diets.
They see this model as far-reaching, with the ability to combat serious problems facing the Hawaiian Islands including the burden of fallow cane lands, the dependence on food imports, the runoff that imperils reefs, and the threat of rising sea levels.
So far, the most immediate and persuasive arguments that the model has produced take the shape of USDA-approved prime cuts of beef, stamped with “Made in Hawai‘i” stickers and sold at Times and Don Quijote supermarkets.
But the public hasn’t yet reached a consensus on local, grass-fed beef, or on Kunoa as its lead provider. “Hawaiʻi was trained to buy food,” Farias says, referring to mainland imports. “That’s what Kunoa fights the most out of everything. Does it taste good? Is it tender? Is it marbled enough? Is it profitable? Those aren’t the big issues. The big issues are people saying, ‘I go to Costco for milk. It comes in a jug in aisle 12.’”
With every new Costco, Walmart, and McDonalds that opens, imported food, shipped to the islands in bulk, increases its monopoly on local diets via higher convenience and lower costs.
To steer public perception and, hopefully, allegiance toward locavorism, Farias takes every opportunity to speak publicly and show off Kunoa’s facilities. But for all its eye-opening power, Kunoa maintains a historical blindspot—before Hawaiʻi was trained to import its beef, it had to be trained to eat it, at a significant environmental cost.
Beef entered Hawaiian diets after British explorer George Vancouver gave King Kamehameha a gift of six cows and one bull in 1793. Kamehameha protected them with a kapu, and the cattle exploded into a herd 25,000 strong by the 1840s—grazing solely, and devastatingly, on native forage.
This homegrown herd on Hawai‘i Island was the genesis of island ranching, as Kamehameha III had to import vaqueros from Mexico to train up a new class of Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, who funneled the wild herds into beef production at places like Parker Ranch. However, corralled cattle overgrazed and trampled their pastures into desertified landscapes.
Ranchers then introduced grasses and fodder that could grow fast enough to keep up—including modern menaces like haole koa and strawberry guava. To hold down topsoil and prevent runoff, they planted Australian eucalyptus and ironwood trees. And ultimately most of the hides, tallow, and meat left the islands for foreign markets.
In a sense, when Kunoa vaunts the power of local beef, it is asking consumers—including a growing base of eco-minded millennials—to forget this past and trust a new era of island ranchers to do better by the ‘āina this time around.
This trust hinges on the success of holistic management, which, in the eyes of many ranchers, soil scientists, and scholars from around the world, is at best a complete gamble. Uncowed by the naysayers, Farias and Beuttell are betting on black—namely, the dark, hearty breed with marbled meat known as Black Angus. And Kunoa is all in.
“If you find something that will do the community better than cattle, I’ll leave,” Farias says. “I’ll be the first one to move.”
Farias dresses the part of a Hawaiʻi cattle rancher, from the straw cowboy hat and brass belt buckle to the blue jeans and palaka-style shirt with “Kunoa” embroidered on the breast. A lifelong cattle roper who spent years competing in the mainland rodeo circuit, Farias wears the garb like a second skin. The dawn sky is overcast, filling up with sun. As if aware of the unfolding tableau, Farias’s dog Hina Iti, named during Farias’s stint managing real estate in Tahiti, trots over and poses by his boot.
Across the road from Farias is a wire fence almost totally consumed by head-high grass. “That’s the hardline of the state and Grove Farm,” he says, pivoting around as he maps the area. “That’s Kālepa Ridge. Wailuā River is just on this side of that mountain range.”
Farias’s gaze lands on an out-of-place grove of eucalyptus trees a few acres away. “That is the state line, under attack from the biofuel industry,” Farias says. Though Kunoa and biofuel companies work toward a common goal of island sustainability, Farias feels that ranchers, who also feed people and leave a less visible mark on the land, are undervalued.
“A lot of the ranchers get pushed around with these higher-yielding crops,” Farias explains. In Hawaiʻi, most land leases defer to “highest and best use” terms, and returns on island cattle are historically low and a long time in the making. “We don’t mind the hard work, the heavy lifting, taking a place that’s completely overgrown, taking down all the trees, getting it all cleaned up. But then when it looks like that, somebody comes in and says, ‘Wow, that would be great for vegetables or something.’”
Out go the ranchers.
The sound of conversation draws a steady muster of cows along Kunoa’s fenceline. They eye their ruler squarely. “See, this is what we want,” Farias says, “cattle that want to know what we’re doing, versus us having to go out there and they’re all hiding in the trees. These cattle just don’t have any bad experiences so they aren’t afraid to come look. Those animals, when they go to harvest, are going to be gentle.”
Kunoa’s four-man herding team, led by multigenerational paniolo Koni Silva, and supported by at least five cattle dogs, puts the cows’ gentleness to the test. As Farias drives ahead and rounds a bend on the road, he inadvertently takes up the rear of Silva’s daily cattle drive.
The men on horseback whoop and clap their hands as they press a herd of about 60 into a lane that leads to a holding pen. The dogs bark wildly, darting through dirt clouds and falling hooves. As Farias’ truck begins to approach, a few cows break and charge toward it. The dogs give chase and circle the ankles of a runner, but it leaps over them and bolts for pasture.
“Those will be culled,” Farias says. Skittish cows will raise skittish young, perpetuating a system containing smarter but less efficient cattle. “Culling is an ongoing thing, but I think in about two years we’ll have a really good bunch of cows that are giving us the kind of calves we need,” he says. “They say the difference between a good ranch and a great ranch is all the good cows. You’ve got to grow up enough to say, ‘We’re going to get rid of that good cow and make room for a great cow.’”
Since most Hawaiʻi ranchers do not have their own harvest facilities, culling has historically meant shooting the animal and leaving its disposal to nature. But with its own slaughterhouse, Kunoa has a new set of options for lower-grade animals: hamburger meat, beef bars, stew meat.
At present, there are approximately 142,000 head of cattle throughout the islands, the majority of which are dedicated to producing calves for picky mainland buyers. But only a fraction of the animals that remain in the islands will make it into the eight local slaughterhouses—most of which are used privately at ranches around the state and not USDA-inspected.
Kunoa wants to change that by opening up its facilities to other ranchers, and possibly enticing them to keep more beef in the state—a hard sell while calf sales continue to rank among the state’s top three most valuable agricultural commodities.
The cattle that Silva and his team rounded up jostle around as they get accustomed to the tighter space of the holding pen. A stout black cow with a glossy coat, tagged number 43—a virtual twin of cow 41—made the prime-cut list, and will ship to Honolulu on Tuesday. Fortunately for Silva, getting number 43 there is much easier than it was for his grandfather, who used to march cattle from Kauaʻi’s north shore across the island to Kalapakī Bay.
“They had a special group of horses that would ride into the mountains and rope all the bad cattle,” Farias says. “They would basically rope them and tie them to a tree for a couple days because they were so bad they had to let their horns get worn down a little bit.”
Once broken, the leaders could be tied to a horse, and the rest of the herd would simply follow them down to the ocean. The animals then had to swim out to waiting ships, one cow on each side of the horse, which had to tread water until the cows were belly-banded and lifted onto the ship.
Eventually, someone thought to replace the horses with canoes, and attach a number of cows to each side like outriggers, speeding up the load time and saving the horses from exhaustion.
Around WWII, shipping containers became the new normal, and today, Kunoa uses its own modified versions with custom, cattle-friendly windows and gates. Come Tuesday, cow 43 will be driven down the lane, then weighed and sent up a ramp into the container.
After the short drive to Nawiliwili Harbor, 43 will be loaded onto a Young Brothers barge, shipped overnight, unloaded in Honolulu, and trucked out to the ʻEwa plain where, after wending through another series of lanes, pens, ramps, and scales, it will take a bolt to the brain, get broken down into cuts of meat, ride a conveyor belt into air-sealed packages, and be placed in giant freezers until the next trucks arrive to take the meat to market.
“I think most people should eat less meat,” says Jack Beuttell over the phone from the East Coast, where he spent the holidays. “I think that when people eat meat, they should eat the right kind of meat, and I want Kunoa to be that kind of meat.” Beuttell has held this unorthodox approach to selling meat since he first pitched the Kunoa model to investors. They liked it, and tapped him to serve as the company’s CEO in 2015. Unlike Farias, who has been around cattle his entire life, Beuttell connected with the animals during the interval between college and graduate school, while working on a Colorado ranch in 2011. Even then, the concept of supplying an entire state with beef was unfathomable. Following a childhood deer hunting trip, he had been vegetarian for 10 years.
“I saw the life in that animal’s eyes when I walked up to it—or rather I saw the death in the animal’s eyes,” he said. “It was just a very intimate, powerful moment for me that made me, for the first time I think, conscious of food, because presumably we were going to eat that deer after I killed it.”
Obviously, Beuttell has changed his ways since then, but he works to instill this conscientious approach in Kunoa’s treatment of animals. All of the company’s lanes, pens, and harvest equipment fit the guidelines set by Temple Grandin, an acclaimed proponent of humane livestock treatment.
“I am trying to bring more honesty and integrity to the space, and to the people that buy my product,” Beuttell says. “I think you should take responsibility for that decision to eat meat. You should understand that it was a living creature that gave its life so that you could extend yours, essentially. A lot of people don’t like that concept, but I sort of think with a scientific mind. If you look at human’s biological evolution, there’s a very tight relationship between human evolution and meat proteins.”
Beuttell’s interest in biological history primed him for his encounter with the ideas of Allan Savory, the godfather of holistic management. The white Zimbabwean rancher and ecologist has been promoting the concept for 40 years, but hit a tipping point in 2013, when his TED Talk went viral. “In nature, grazing species live in herds and move in herds that are tightly bound by predators lurking on the perimeter of the herd, picking off the weaklings,” Beuttell says of Savory’s ideas. Holistic ranches mimic this through tactical fencing and culling. “The livestock follow the feed,” Beuttell continues, “so they eat that forage down voraciously and as they move along, they poop, they pee, their saliva actually serves as a stimulant of sorts to the grasses, and their hoof action turns the soil over and reseeds the grass, like a very superficial disking of the soil, and those animals then move on.” Over time, he explains, grasses evolved along with the species that grazed them.
In Beuttell’s inventory of the cattle’s various bodily emissions, he left out the most problematic one that Savory’s acolytes and for-profit Savory Institute are up against: methane from the animals’ flatulence and decomposing manure. A 2017 Penn State study found that livestock in the United States could be emitting as much as 19.6 billion pounds of methane gas per year. But proponents of holistic management attribute this to the industry’s status quo, the feedlot model, which holds animals in large, static spaces that gradually desertify land under the steady churn of hooves, and contains fermenting manure in nearby lagoons. Savory’s followers claim that the grass stimulated by roving ungulates actually sequesters carbon emissions through photosynthesis, reversing global warming. But the ostensible proof that moving herds can even affect grass growth rates, let alone greenhouse gases, has been hotly debated. Complicating matters, Savory has historically dismissed empirical studies altogether, claiming that holistic management is endlessly adaptable to different settings and thus produces unrepeatable results.
Looking past the fray, a number of ranchers around the world have cherry-picked from Savory’s strategy to find solutions that work best for their environs. At the moment, Kunoa is doing just that—as are some other Hawaiʻi ranches, though more out of tradition than newfound inspiration. Still, the current reality is that even if Savory’s ideas were definitively quashed tomorrow, Kunoa’s steadily moving herd of 2,500 is too small to significantly alter Kauaʻi’s rain-soaked landscape, for better or worse. But then, Kunoa wants to grow.
“We can put more cattle per unit of land because we have healthier land, and we have more productive land,” Beuttell says. Kunoa is nearing a goal of raising $3 million to buy more cattle, lease more land, upgrade the slaughterhouse’s capacity, and build an education center outside of it. In 2017, Kunoa was named a candidate for one of the Savory Institute’s satellite training centers known as Savory Hubs.
“What we’re trying to do is essentially shed light on these practices and create a way for consumers to engage with that narrative, to learn and understand why they should support this practice over the mainland feedlot model,” Beuttell says. “That’s where I think Kunoa is adding value and making a difference. We are essentially a vehicle for education.”
The coastal area now known as Campbell Industrial Park, where Kunoa’s slaughterhouse sits today, was once the finishing area for cattle belonging to 19th-century industrialist James Campbell. In August of 1885, the editor of Honolulu’s Daily Bulletin, Daniel Logan, joined a cavalcade of journalists from every major Honolulu newspaper, and went on a mission to explore the 43,000-acre world of Campbell’s Honouliuli Ranch.
On arrival, Logan found the cattle grazing on native species that covered the slopes. In the seaside finishing paddock, he found “thick growths of pili, mākuʻekuʻe, pualele (milkweed), mānienie, kūkaepuaʻa, and other native grasses,” a vision far from the modern standard of finishing on grain or corn.
Campbell’s feeding practice was also at odds with the recommendation of the Planters’ Labor and Supply Company, an elite organization of white planters, which reported in 1883 that “the grass for stock which flourishes best on the island is the kind called ‘guinea.’”
An invasive species of grass from Africa, Megathyrsus maximus, or guinea grass, was purportedly first introduced in the mid-1800s by Judge Lawrence McCully to Kaʻu on Hawaiʻi Island. It grew so well, the Planters’ report stated, that “[Charles Reed] Bishop said that this kind of grass ought to be more generally introduced. He had no doubt that it would prove valuable to feed stock.”
With the seal of approval from Bishop—and a record of proven success in colonial agriculture projects in South Asia and the Caribbean—the introduced guinea grass became the feed of choice for island ranchers, and it remains so to this day.
And yet it seems that the decision to rally behind guinea grass was made in haste. Campbell’s herd of 5,500, which was subsisting and finishing on mostly native grasses, supplied one third of Honolulu’s daily meat consumption in 1885. What’s more, “The ranch is capable of supplying a much larger daily quota of beeves,” Logan wrote. “If the grasses, and other plants in their present condition, mean anything, they indicate enough and to spare for herds numbering twice five thousand.”
The planters’ quick deference to guinea grass derives from its ability to outpace foreign grasses introduced earlier to the islands. In 1889, the Hawaiian Gazette reported, “It is well known to all country residents that the native grasses have been steadily ousted by two foreign intruders, viz.: Hilo grass and mānienie.”
Unfortunately, neither Hilo grass nor mānienie, also called Bermuda grass, produced quality beef. Instead of working to re-establish the wholesome native grasses that fed Campbell’s cattle, which would have required time, space, and controlled breeding and grazing, the planters conducted an experiment. They tried sowing imports like guinea grass right over patches of Hilo grass.
In a short time, the Gazette reported, “The foreign grasses, in spite of a luxuriant growth of Hilo grass, were holding their own famously.” Ironically, the success of guinea grass was seen as a win for diversity—making cattle, once an exclusively royal holding, viable to the haole planters whose coffers were previously dependent on sugar. As it turned out, the guinea grass spread indiscriminately throughout the cane fields, leading planters to introduce herbicides to the soil, and thus the water beneath it.
With a trickle-down effect similar to so many other introduced elements of Hawaiʻi’s history, the cow was a big drop in a small pond, and it still ripples like wind across a field of grass that will never give a native plant a chance to break the soil. This, too, is the price, of local, grass-fed beef.
“The guinea grass is a double-edged sword,” Farias says, driving down a muddy road through Kunoa’s coastal finishing paddocks, immediately north of Līhuʻe Airport. The use of the metaphor speaks to his ability to look at problems from both sides, but this time he is being quite literal. If guinea grass grows too tall, its sharp edges slash the cows’ eyelids, which can attract flies, cause infections, and ultimately lead to a culled animal. But they let the grass here grow tall and seed out for practical reasons. “We’ve never planted any grass. This grass is trying to come back natural. It’s fighting all that herbicides and all that they put down,” he says, referring to the old sugar planters and the area’s last tenant—Syngenta.
In recent years, Syngenta, which grows seed corn on Kauaʻi, has faced fines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and been taken to court for its pesticide use. By comparison, the ranchers raising guinea grass seem rather benign, and maybe in the broad scheme of things, it is better to have an introduced mammal keeping introduced grasses in check.
As far as Farias is concerned, any grass is better than what his neighbors are growing, including genetically modified corn crops for seed, invasive eucalyptus trees for biofuel, and even massive solar fields, which are being developed by Tesla. Because the solar panels sit close to the ground, they actually hog the sun, preventing any undergrowth that would trap the topsoil.
“It’s a monoculture,” Farias says. “If we all approach agriculture that way, then we’re going to be in trouble.” For Kunoa’s part, solar is relegated to the roof of the harvest facility. And while beef itself may be a monoculture, Farias reasons that “it’s a moveable crop.” In other words, it’s a stopgap against larger, less pono powers.
The dirt road ends at the edge of a bluff, and Farias parks his truck, its tires enveloped in red mud. He throws a stick for Hina Iti, then turns to survey the view—some tasseled grass, a few ironwood trees, and the wide, blue ocean.
“This is why we’re never going to own ranch land,” he says. The landowners and developers see too much potential, a higher, better use. “They’re going to sit here and have a drink and tell everybody how you can’t sell this for what Bobby wants to pay,” he says. Farias lets his thoughts run on, from hotels, to school lunches, to Mark Zuckerberg, and then recalls a recent run-in with Governor David Ige.
The governor asked him what he thought about increasing local food production, to which Farias replied, “I don’t see it.” Ige was stunned, saying, “I thought you, of all people.” But because the government only devotes less than half a percent of its budget to agriculture, Farias stood his ground.
He says that he told Ige, “We’re not magicians. You guys brag on the tourist numbers because that’s how much you put into it, you know? It’s like a bank account—you only get out of it what you put into it. So can it be done? It could be done here better than any state anywhere, if you let us.”