story by David Thompson
photo by Jack Wolford
Adam Beard and Kyle Christensen, two Idaho farm boys in a battered Ford pickup, bump along the rocky road between a Big Island state forest reserve and Island Dairy, looking for runaways. Adam spots one. “Right there,” he says, pointing toward a black-and-white dot on a distant hillside: a cow on the lam. When you’ve got 1,500 Holsteins at pasture, as Island Dairy does, a few are bound to wander off now and then.
“We had one that got out, wandered to the edge of the gorge and fell in,” says Kyle. “I had to rappel down the cliff and put a sling around her so we could hoist her out. Fortunately, she fell into the trees. She was scratched up but fine.”
There are plenty of places a runaway can hide at Island Dairy, the largest dairy in the state. Of course, there are only two dairies in the state; nonetheless, with 2,400 acres on Mauna Kea’s eastern slope, Island Dairy is still a good-size operation. And it’s growing. It recently doubled the size of its herd, recruited experts (Adam and Kyle) and ramped up milk production to about 2,500 gallons per week. Until the beginning of this year, all of its milk sold on the Big Island, under the Mountain Apple brand. Now, under the Hawaii’s Fresh label, a few hundred gallons a week go to Maui, Oahu and Kauai, islands that previously imported 100 percent of their milk from the Mainland.
Hawaii once had dozens of dairies and produced all of its own milk. But the sky-high cost of importing grain, among other factors, decimated the industry through the 1980s and ’90s. At the heart of Island Dairy’s effort to put local milk back in Hawaii’s cereal bowls are the oats, corn, sorghum and other crops it grows to supplement the pricey Mainland grain its cows consume. So far the farm has about 180 acres planted, and more to come.
When Adam and Kyle retrieve the runaway, she’ll return to a life of grazing in the pasture, visiting the milking parlor, filling her stomach with home-grown silage and bolstering Hawaii’s ability to nourish itself. But given the chance, she’ll wander off again. “That’s just,” says Adam, “how cows are.”