Our weekly series continues, talking story with local farmers, ranchers, and other food producers about their crucial efforts to sustain our communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kauai farm produces alfalfa as a cost-effective, high-quality livestock feed
A conversation with
Joshua Uyehara, Vice President & General Manager of Hawaii Operations, Hartung Brothers
By Dani Douglass
At Hartung Brothers in Kekaha, Kauai, there are fewer workers driving vehicles these days. This is mainly due to social distancing safety measures, but the operation is also adjusting in other ways — such as adding alfalfa for feed to its usual corn and soy production. Since the pandemic began, Vice President and General Manager of Hawaii Operations Joshua Uyehara has seen an increased demand for cattle feed across the island and recently obtained a grant to fulfill that need.
The company already produces hay for livestock feed but will soon be offering its customers alfalfa cubes as a sustainable and affordable alternative that it hopes will help improve food security. Alfalfa hay is loaded with high protein levels and is easily digestible. It’s also packed with vitamins and minerals, and it yields a higher relative feed value compared to grass.
Although feed sales to tourist-reliant operations like horse tours have gone down, Uyehara said there have been some surprising consequences of the pandemic that are balancing out the loss in some, albeit small ways, including a more favorable cattle production environment.
Hawaii’s total inventory of cattle is approximately 140,000 statewide. However, the majority of the state’s ranching industry has been focused on cow calf operations, with 30,000-50,000 calves shipped annually to the U.S. Mainland.
Fear of drought and the high cost of imported feed have been driving the cow calf business model for decades, since drought means less grass for feed and having to pay for costly imported alternatives. The result is a high inventory of cattle, but with more than 80% of calves shipped away. Most of the beef being sold in Hawaii is purchased and imported from out of state. Only 9,000-13,000 cattle are processed each year at local facilities to feed local communities.
Due to the pandemic, it’s now more expensive to ship cattle, the earnings are lower, and there is a sobering awareness of soaring beef prices with each trip to the supermarket.
“The net effect is that it’s more viable to try local beef production because, if you’re not going to get as much for the calf you are selling and meat is more expensive at the store, it’s more likely you can compete finishing beef in state,” Uyehara said.
Aside from changes in the cattle market, Uyehara said he’s been surprised by how much packaging material in the supply chain is tailored to the specific type of customer in the market.
“Home consumers buy in small quantities and, if you’re used to selling a 50-pound case of lettuce to hotels, the packaging you now need may not be available and in short supply,” he said.
On a personal level, Uyehara is encouraged by how the community has pulled together to support each other through this worldwide crisis. He said it feels similar to the times after hurricanes Iwa and Iniki or when the massive floods impacted the north shore a couple of years ago.
He is also excited about the Hawaii Farm to School Hui initiative, which is a partnership between the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Department of Education, and a network of agriculture partners, including Aina Hookupu o Kilauea. A major challenge to having the schools prepare and incorporate fresh produce into school lunches has been the lack of equipment and training.
“There will be training here Kauai over the next few weeks, and schools are gearing up to really jump on sourcing local produce and preparing fresh food for school cafeterias,” Uyehara explained. “This will help teach different consumption habits to the kids.”
Training also helps cafeteria staff develop a broader range of scratch cooking and other related skills necessary for incorporating locally sourced ingredients, an effort that proved successful in similar farm-to-school pilot projects on other islands. In addition, this investment in the employees helps those individuals broaden career options available to them over time.
Community partnerships with organizations such as the Kekaha Agriculture Association have also allowed Hartung Brothers to participate in food relief efforts. He acknowledged that, although he doesn’t know any farms that have shut down due to the pandemic, some are not far off. Many have donated produce in order to avoid the cost associate with slowing or ceasing operations.
“Because of farming’s long lead time, there’s a high cost that comes with stopping operations if you’re financially struggling,” Uyehara said. Hartung has given approximately $6,000 of trial feed to various organizations and individuals on the Garden Isle.
Although he thinks it will take at least five years and possibly up to 10 for the state to recover from the financial effects of the pandemic, Uyehara has his sights set on what’s important now. He’s focused on strengthening and improving Hartung Brother’s core business performance and diversifying the business into areas like alfalfa cubes to improve food security and resiliency.
Uyehara said awareness and education of the importance of local food production and sustainability are coming through industry organizations like the Hawaii Farm Bureau and initiatives such as the farm-to-school program. He also sees more attention to health and safety resulting from the pandemic, which he hopes will lead to behavior changes and solutions focused on getting the community through this challenging time.
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