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.
A conversation with
Jake Muise, CEO of Maui Nui Venison
By Dani Douglass
Like many farm owners across Hawaii, 2020 has posed extraordinary challenges for Maui Nui Venison CEO Jake Muise. He’s had to furlough employees, which means he’s in the field more, doing more with less — even as demand for wild-caught and sustainable USDA Axis deer has increased. He is continually striving to expedite harvesting in an attempt to keep up.
With the pandemic turning the world upside down, necessitating business closures and social distancing, and disrupting local and national supply chains, the invasive Axis deer population on the Valley Isle remains high. Part of managing an invasive species that threatens to overwhelm the landscape is finding a way to utilize the animal to benefit the local community. The large herds, which some estimate range between 35,000 and 50,000 on the island, have allowed Muise to harvest a lot of high-quality protein and donate to local food banks at a time of immense pressure and need, while creating a new direct sales program for customers to try to make up some of the lost restaurant sales.
Muise said he felt a push to answer the call of the community need.
“I see it as a sense of kuleana and a deep sense of connection that farmers have to the land and their communities,” he said. “It’s these ties that probably moved them to become food producers in the first place.”
At the start of the pandemic, when his sales to many of Maui’s most popular restaurants started to plummet due to closures, Muise shifted gears and launched the Holo Ai initiative. In the Hawaiian language, Holo Ai means to move food to where it is needed. To date, the program has contributed 17,000 pounds of food, or 50,000 meals, to local food banks and the tables of those in need.
Another component of Holo Ai is a discounted purchasing program for residents who want to purchase fresh venison and have it delivered to their doorsteps. The Fresh Box, which includes ground venison, stew chunks, medallion, rib rack and striploin, is expanding its customer reach outside of Hawaii this month. Holo Ai is expected to continue as a permanent program through the continued support of partners and customers.
“We are launching kamaaina and nationwide home delivery of fresh venison. We expect the direct-to-consumer model to grow stronger for food producers across the board,” Muise said.
Muise said it’s been amazing to watch his team quickly adapt to “the new normal” through the pandemic. He runs the business alongside his wife, Kuulani Muise, co-founder and brand director. He has an abundance of gratitude for his “Maui Nui ohana.” He is appreciative of everyone working in the field and the community partners who have assisted with storing, moving, cooking and sharing venison through Holo Ai.
“I have an incredible team that was able to quickly ramp up harvesting and expedite the launch of a direct consumer program to make available as much fresh venison as possible to Hawaii customers,” he added.
Although strides are being made in his business and perspectives are shifting regarding the viability of Hawaii’s agricultural industry, Muise sees an uphill journey ahead. It’s about going back and taking stock in food systems and recognizing the importance of resiliency. He is also committed to being a voice in conversations about food security because he sees that support for local food producers and funding for better processing and infrastructure are key to long-term sustainability.
“Hopefully, this unprecedented increase in disruptions to Hawaii’s supply chains and food distribution networks has helped us all to better identify what needs to be fixed and strengthened,” he explained. “Our leaders need to be more proactive in supporting food systems and working toward these solutions.”
Muise remains committed to doing his part to be a part of that solution by providing a high-quality protein source for his community and customers.
“There is a lot of work to be done to build resilience and equity into our local food systems, and we believe that those who can build, should build,” he said. “We’d like to send a mahalo nui to everyone committed to building and sharing in Hawaii’s collective abundance.”
Follow Maui Nui Venison on Instagram: @mauinuivenison
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