Special Report: Hawaii's dairy farms on life support
HONOLULU - There was a time when Hawaii produced 33 million gallons of milk every year.
Today, the few dairy farms still standing are fighting for their lives.
"We are the last, of the old, old dairies," said Ed Boteilho.
Rambling down the dusty farm road as has he has for decades, 71 year-old Ed Boteilho is determined to protect a legacy for his family and the people he serves.
"We hate to just shut down all of this," he said.
Hugging the North Kohala coast on the Big Island, his family's Cloverleaf Dairy is the last locally owned commercial dairy farm in the state.
"We slowly grew it as a family; my mom and dad and seven children," he said.
"That was my life. That was my life, you know," said his 89 year-old mother Josephine Boteilho.
She remembers the dream that started 53 years ago.
At its peak, they had 892 acres and 800 cows, producing 3,400 gallons a day.
"Oh my goodness, it was hard, but it was good too though," she said.
In recent months, Ed's had to shave hundreds from his herd, in a last gasp effort to save the business.
"I knew what was coming. I knew what this meant," he said, shaking his head.
"There was a milk war years ago," began The Department of Agriculture's Jeri Kahana. She knows, it's a war still smoldering today.
"People don't realize, (what to do about local milk), this is a long term issue," she said.
Hawaii's first commercial dairy opened in 1869.
There were nearly 90 dairies by the 1950s and competition was fierce.
By 1967, the battle for fair prices between producers and processors had exploded.
Farmers protested by dumping thousands of gallons of milk at Iolani Palace, before The Milk Act later that year set the minimum price.
"It worked for a while," said Kahana.
She said that was until urbanization squeezed back farms, and local feed, such as pineapple tops and other by-products, disappeared along with those industries -- forcing farmers to buy expensive mainland feed.
"We did have a flour mill at one time. When that closed down, that also shut down the feed source," she said.
To make matters worse, by the time Foremost Dairies called it quits in 2004, the nine island processing plants had dwindled to just one.
In June 2015, Meadow Gold, the state's last processor, threatened to stop buying local, if the two remaining dairy farmers refused to sell their milk for less.
In a statement, Meadow Gold said, in part: "Under the old minimum milk price regulations, we were increasingly concerned that purchasing raw milk from Hawaii's milk producers was no longer financially viable for our company."
"So, if they go away, where will the farmers sell their milk? We don't have another option," said Kahana.
"So, that's the butter churning. We'll use that vat to make cheese tomorrow," explained Monique Van de Stroom, showing KITV4 News reporter Lara Yamada a large metal vat spinning slowly on a semi-automated churn on her Waianae farm on Oahu.
Van de Stroom shut down Pacific Dairy, the last dairy farm on Oahu, seven years ago.
About a year later, she resurfaced as Naked Cow Dairy.
"If I wanted to stay in the dairy business I had to create my own opportunity," she said.
In recent years, her business has caught fire.
Naked Cow Dairy's hand-crafted, creative butters and cheeses have become a favorite with chefs and food stores.
"This is our smoked paprika-rubbed rind cheese and then I do the Kona Buzz," said her sister Sabrina St. Martin, as she showed us their walk in refrigerator stacked with cheeses at different levels of production.
"The younger generation wants to know where they're food comes from. So, we conduct tours, we have people come out here, can see the farm, and watch the milking," said Van der Stroom.
And, show their support. Crowdfunding raised $20,000 to help pay for a processor for them to boost production.
"It was really nice, the community did help us out a lot," said St. Martin.
"It's bittersweet. It's an opportunity opened for us, because things were shifting and changing," said Van der Stroom.
"We're cutting out expenses and trying to get to a point where we can balance out and still make money," said Boteilho.
Since June 2015, he's cut a third of his staff -and half his herd.
And, a shift from less feed to more grass is saving money and keeping new additions healthy.
Boteilho believes dairy is still viable here.
Billionaire Pierre Omydiar's Ulupono Initiative offered to buy his farm, but the proposed deal fell through.
Ulupono's now embroiled in their own efforts. Its Kauai Dairy proposal is facing challenges and community backlash.
"I think we were surprised by this much concern, because we truly believe in this model of dairy. We've seen it in operation now in New Zealand and Georgia. It's a cleaner better model and our goal is food security and food sustainability and so we wouldn't want to bring a project that was going to have a negative impact on our ability to do that, said Amy Hennessey, Ulupono Initiative Communications Director.
Boteilho said other investors have offered to fund a full processing facility, but he's worried about big changes at his age.
"I had to think about it and say what are our options here," said Boteilho.
"I tell him, whatever it takes, I help you all the way. That's all it is," said senior employee Jessie Campollo.
Right now, Boteilho said he's focused on his milk by keeping it local and high quality.
"I'm proud. I'm proud that we lasted so long. I'm proud that we're still doing what we started out to do," said Boteilho.
Van Der Stroom is using his milk for her products.
"We're just happy people have embraced and supported what we set out to do," she said.
Their future runs side by side.
Now, on the road… less traveled.
"We need to help them succeed," said Kahana.
"We face challenges all through our life, but we as a family have stood strong and tall. We're going through another challenge and we're going to persevere," said Boteilho.
Boteilho said he may have another option to make cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream, at some point.
Van Der Sloom said she's looking at property on the North Shore or Kunia to possibly expand her business.
Kahana took a trip to Idaho in October and returned with some business options, that she said, the Department of Agriculture cannot discuss just yet.
She said they're interested in working with the seed industry to see if they can possibly start growing feed locally.