The Staff of Life

Images by Megan Spelman & John Hook

These local dairy farms and bakeries push through the difficulties of operating in Hawai’i.

The reason cows weren’t part of the scenery when Captain Cook first met Hawaiians might be because, like many things, cattle didn’t fit in a canoe. In 1793, British sea captain George Vancouver attempted a clumsy remedy, arriving on Hawai‘i Island with a gift of several longhorn cattle for high chief Kamehameha. They were called pua‘a pepeiaohao, or “pigs with iron ears,” as Hawaiians had never seen horns. The king placed a ban on harming them, and within a few generations, the slopes of Mauna Kea were overrun by herds.

Over a century, the culture of the Hawaiian cowboy, or paniolo, emerged on all islands, in addition to a cottage dairy industry. By the 1970s, 100 percent of Hawai‘i’s milk supply came from Hawai‘i cows. A few decades later, that number shrank drastically, and today, in every community besides Hawai‘i Island, merely 20 percent of the milk supply is produced by local cows.

For centuries, milk has served as the sustenance of childhood and the promise of a hopeful future. In fact, milk from cows was integral to the development of civilization, and its availability, along with other staples like grain, became an indicator of wealth. (The ancient Egyptians amassed harvests in grain banks, using the crop as a currency for several millennia.)

The notion continues today, when the availability of staple goods such as these often serve as useful, colloquial metrics of one’s standard of living: While gasoline prices fluctuate in relation to powers outside of local control, the price and quality of items like bread and milk speak volumes about the efficiency of local government, the health of the private sector, and quality of life. Nobody asks about the median household income in conversation.

If you want a quick metric of the good life, you ask: “How much is a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread?” If you can afford a decent sandwich and a latte for $10, good living is not far off.

Relying on external sources for perishable commodities (interchangeable goods that spoil at an established rate) such as milk means that Hawai‘i is susceptible to the volatility of global trade. We’ve all heard how it could get worse: With an estimated 90 percent of food being imported for 1.4 million residents, the islands have only 10 days of fresh produce and dairy should cargo ships stop arriving.

When it comes to food products, the market, and hence availability, are often confined by economics. The dollar doesn’t go very far in Hawai‘i, which has a cost of living that is 85 percent higher than others; here, nearly half of adult residents live paycheck to paycheck. Still, jobs have been steadily increasing in Hawai‘i for several years, and the jobless rate is at an all-time low.

In the 2016 fiscal year, the state had a record-setting $1 billion general treasury cash surplus, primarily because of tourism. But tourism waxes and wanes, and it is through industries that don’t rely on it that Hawai‘i will move toward a more sustainable economic future.

Still, not everyone wants to be a dairy farmer or baker, roles with famously odd hours and unique smells. But these are the sorts of jobs that have traditionally provided middle-class wages in first-world nations. In Hawai‘i, an isolated archipelago with a considerably high quality of life, farming and baking are the sorts of commodity-producing careers that have become devalued with the ascendance of a tourism-based economy.

For the last several decades, both industries have been dominated by a few local companies that provide stable, well-paying jobs. But by becoming serious contenders in local commodities production, two other Hawai‘i-based companies, Big Island Dairy and La Tour Bakehouse, are expanding the local economy, the affordability of everyday items, and by extension, the purchasing power of local consumers.



In 1929, five years after the introduction of mechanical refrigeration to Hawai‘i, C.W. Reynolds, the Industrial Secretary of the United States, created a report to assess the development of dairy across the islands.

“Ask the dairymen of Wisconsin or Minnesota what the results would be if they could be given a succession of twelve months like June,” Reynolds wrote of Hawai‘i’s picturesque climate. “Give Hawaii knowledge of dairying held by these two states and anticipate the answer.”

The secretary was under the impression that Hawai‘i could experience massive yields in its expanding dairy industry. The retail cost of a quart of milk was 30 cents, delivered to your home or office in a milk bottle, capped with a paper cap, what locals called a “pog.”

The industrial secretary advocated for 20-year leases to allow for the development of long-term irrigation plans for dairies, and referenced developing creameries in New Zealand and Japan, which had similar populaces that were becoming accustomed to dairy products. By the writing of the report, the territory had mandated that milk be served with public school meals, creating a built-in demand for the product.

By the 1960s, dozens of farms across the islands produced all the milk consumed locally. Farmers fed their cattle the dried stems and stumps of pineapple and dietary fiber from sugar industry byproduct. As a result of disagreements between processors like Meadow Gold and small family farms, called the “Milk Wars,” the state passed a law in 1967 that dictated the price at which milk is purchased from farmers, but not the price at which it is sold to consumers.

Cattle husbandry, in the dairy industry and in paniolo contests, had become ingrained in local culture. In 1976, the winner of the national hand-milking contest, held annually in Sacramento, California, was a local guy, Mr. Walter Carlos, who pulled an impressive 13.6 lbs. of milk in a single sitting.


Around the same time, the cost of land and feed was becoming burdensome to local dairy farmers, who begun to rely on mainland corn and grain. Meanwhile, the cost of freight from the U.S. mainland had decreased dramatically, and the speed of ships had increased. Hawai‘i began importing milk in 1985, and not long after, dozens of dairies across the islands were shuttered.

In 2004, when Foremost Dairy closed, Meadow Gold—originally Dairymen’s Association, Ltd., a cooperative of a few family farms across O‘ahu—became the only pasteurization and distribution facility in Hawai‘i, with one site in urban Honolulu, and the other near the airport in Hilo on Hawai‘i Island.

Today, a gallon of local milk can cost nearly $8, which is more than double the average price of milk in other U.S. states. Prices are dictated by an iniquitous alliance of factors: the state-regulated purchase price, the lack of dairy farms on the islands, and the vagaries of the market across the sea.

As a result of the federal Jones Act, vessels that transport cargo or passengers between two U.S. ports must be built, crewed, and owned by Americans, meaning that refrigerated containers making a beeline from California to Hawai‘i with perishable milk are operating without international competition. And when feed or fuel costs increase for Northern California dairies, where Meadow Gold purchases most of its “pool” of milk, which includes milk from local farms, so too does the price of milk.

Nearly an hour’s drive up the coast from Hilo is the 2,500-acre Big Island Dairy in ‘Ō‘ōkala, the largest local dairy in present production, and one of the last two large-scale milk producers in the state. Father-son owners Steven and Derek Whitesides, who also own a 6,400-cow dairy in Idaho, purchased the dairy in 2012 in hopes of modernizing the operation and increasing Hawai‘i’s local supply.

Seen through a window in the dairy’s administrative office is the milking parlor, where cows queue themselves into respective metal holders while a worker brushes iodine onto their teats, then gently applies a milking machine, which detaches itself like something out of a science fiction film when its pressure monitor senses that the cow is done for the session.

“It’s a double parallel rapid release parlor, ready for the 21st century,” says Brad Duff, the dairy’s general manager, who is from Iowa. “The goal is to make these cows as comfortable as possible, which an experienced dairyman can tell by the sheen of their coats, by the affect of their demeanor. Most of these cows are milked three times a day, and we ship 24,000 gallons a week.”

Big Island Dairy has room to grow to its allowed 2,000 cows, but presently it milks only 1,200—a tenth of the size of the mega milking operations throughout the American western states, which have an economy of scale that allows them to cut costs.


The environmental results of massive agribusiness, particularly cattle, are becoming known. A smaller number of cows means a smaller carbon footprint, but it also means a lower sale price. In other economic sectors, this could mean that a local producer is cut out of the market. But milk, like bread, is a perishable commodity, and the shorter the period between cow and consumer, the more viable the product.

All of Big Island Dairy’s 4 million gallons produced each year go to a single plant for processing: Meadow Gold, which still handles pasteurization and distribution from its facilities in Hilo and Honolulu. This means that 80 percent of the milk sold on Hawai‘i Island is truly local, having been milked from cows on island, pasteurized and packaged there, and then distributed to several island grocery store chains, including Costco. To compete with the milk coming from California, Big Island Dairy must be obsessive about its cows.

“Some healthy, recently calved cows produce as much as 120 pounds of milk per day,” Duff says. “Though the goal is about 80 pounds per head.”

Per federal and state regulations, the lives of dairy cows are highly regulated. Everything else is determined by the market.

“If the market dictated that we needed to produce organic milk, we’d do it,” Duff says, explaining that organic milk means that cows eat only organic feed. “As is, people aren’t willing to pay upwards of $16 a gallon.”

To offset the cost of feed, Big Island Dairy attempts to grow much of its own. Over 350 acres are dedicated to corn, which ferments in a large, cylindrical plastic bag 3 meters high and is later mixed with a variety of other imported feed. The lot fronting the dairy’s administration building is abuzz with the construction of a new pasteurization facility. Once itʼs completed, Big Island Dairy hopes to become a rival to Meadow Gold, which may lead to lower costs for consumers.

On the day I visit the dairy, flocks gather where the feed is stored in a setup that resembles a series of handball courts filled with grain, a version of bird heaven. In the barn, a metal skidsteer continually sweeps the length of the pen, pushing fresh droppings through grates.

“They eat, they drink, they give milk, they poop; these are the certainties of a cow,” Duff says.

It’s a wonder of modern farming that milk survives rigorous testing from a variety of federal, state, and independent agencies, which mandate that entire silos of milk be dumped if a test shows contamination.


The fight over the smell of wafting manure, as well as the risk of contaminated runoff, is being played out on the south shore of Kaua‘i, where another local dairy is attempting to open. In the post-sugar era, the state invested in tourism to replace a century of an agricultural economy, which included the dairy industry. The gorgeous and historic southern shore of Kaua‘i, like South Maui and the coast of Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i Island, became an exclusive visitor zone, with world-class golf courses dotting its coastline.

Here, in 2013, Hawai‘i’s richest resident, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay whose network of investments constitute a significant bloc of non-governmental organizations, purchased 557 acres in Maha‘ulepu Valley in hopes of building a dairy through his organization Ulupono Initiative. According to Ulupono Initiative, the dairy could produce 1.2 million gallons of milk per year, using a sustainable, pasture-based system. The proposed development has its detractors, however, and has been challenged in court on two separate occasions, first by Kawailoa Development, which owns the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, in 2014, and then by a group called Friends of Maha‘ulepu in 2015.

Kawailoa’s award-winning Poipu Bay Golf Course, built on former agriculture land after a protracted battle in state courts, is directly downwind of the proposed dairy. From the perspective of residents who want fresh, affordable milk products, it remains debatable whether a golf course is better for the community than a pool of manure.


Once it is milled, grain—the foundation of any good bread—can be stored for months. “There’s a reason bread created civilization,” Trung Lam says from the 60,000-square-foot La Tour Bakehouse located on the second floor of the La Tour Plaza on Nimitz Highway.

Much like the missionaries who settled in the islands who found themselves without that familiar taste of home, Trung’s father, Thanh Lam, an immigrant from Vietnam who arrived to Hawai‘i in 1984, was dismayed by the lack of fresh bread available for his Vietnamese grab-and-go sandwich shop Ba-Le, which he had opened in Chinatown, Honolulu with his wife and business partner, Le Vo.

More than 130 years prior, another immigrant baker to Hawai‘i, a Scotsman named Robert Love, found himself in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. By the time Love opened his bakery in 1853, there was money to be made baking the hardtack that was eaten aboard whaling ships. The Love family expanded the business over decades, and went on to dominate the wholesale baking industry across the islands, offering hundreds of well-paid jobs to residents.

Today, as the state’s largest supplier of freshly baked breads, Love’s continues delivering everything from sliced bread to Hostess cupcakes across O‘ahu and to neighbor islands via tightly scheduled air transport, while frozen, thawed, and sometimes re-baked bread appears in fast food restaurants and grocery aisles.

“I want to be like Love’s,” Thanh Lam told Honolulu food critic John Heckathorn in 1986, two years after opening Ba-Le.

To meet their sandwich ingredient needs, Thanh, whose sons Trung and Brandon were 5 and 3, respectively, at the time, had begun baking baguettes in the back of the shop, creating a freshness that added to the popularity of Ba-Le’s bánh mi, a sandwich that fuses French bread with the Vietnamese flavors of fresh cilantro and do chua (pickled daikon and carrots). The bread became locally famous, and orders for the baguettes began spilling in from other restaurants. By the time Trung and Brandon were in their 20s, there were 24 Ba-Le shops operating across O‘ahu, run by members of the Lam family or workers promoted from within.


In 1996, to keep up with orders, Thanh built a bakery near the O‘ahu Community Correctional Facility on Dillingham Boulevard. Fifteen years later, with Trung, Brandon, and local baker and pastry chef Rodney Weddle, Thanh expanded again, this time on the site on Nimitz Highway, where Dole Pineapple once packaged its pineapple products for global distribution. He renamed the building La Tour Plaza, and installed a massive bakery on the second floor that he called La Tour Bakehouse to reflect a turn toward artisanal breads.

On the first floor, co-owners and lessees opened a variety of businesses, and the Lams opened La Tour Café, a casual, European-style spot serving bread fresh out of the ovens upstairs. The Bakehouse employs 140 people and runs its bakery around the clock, supplying artisanal bread or dough to hotels, supermarkets, and restaurants across the state. It also stocks the 19 Ba-Le restaurants and three La Tour Café locations across the island.

“Everything about operating in Hawai‘i is expensive,” says Trung, who can reasonably be described as the company’s chief operations officer. “We can save money through automation, and through smart business practices.”

They do so with massive 21st century ovens and calibrated machines that knead and cut dough precisely, so as to allow dough to rise or fall according to specific recipes. To compete in a market that literally feeds Hawai‘i, La Tour Bakehouse has had to learn the lessons of innovation and cost-reduction quickly, which, in turn, benefits the consumer.

The ubiquity of daily bread has meant that for centuries, bakeries, and bakers themselves, are the heartbeat of community. Bread is much more than the staff of life; it is the host of the spirit, and what is metaphorically broken during a peace treaty. La Tour Bakehouse is built on a global truism: that freshly baked bread is life-sustaining and delicious; and day-old bread is stale and inferior. Everyone from the day laborer to the company boss can afford something fresh off the bakery menu.

Baking is a job that requires good spirits, good shoes, and in return, should deliver a livable wage—historically, in Hawai‘i and around the world, it has. The islands’ reliance on frozen bread and imported milk roughly tracked the reliance on a service-based tourism economy, which, while capricious, is currently booming. But in order for the islands to be self-sufficient in the 21st century, there must exist opportunities for employment in commodities production, as well as in the service industry.


The American Dream was never the sole property of Americans, but of the vast majority of humanity. Whatever it is, the Lams have achieved it. Gallons of milk and loaves of bread—these are the daily items that make up the moments of our lives across the economic spectrum. Whether these products come from our community, and how much we pay for them, matters.

Residents in the islands are often reminded of the issue of food security when purchasing groceries, or lunch. A few weeks after my visit to the dairy, I attempt to get an affordable, all-local lunch for under $10 at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. At Ba-Le, I order a $5 veggie bánh mi, which is made with bread I know was baked hours previous in the dark of night, and then stuffed with vegetables sourced from local farmers. A short walk away, I order a latte made with coffee beans grown on Hawai‘i Island, pricier than the house blend, for $4. Holding up the line, I pester the cashier to find out where the milk comes from.

This story is part of our The Good Life Issue.

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