Where’s the beef?
PAAUILO — Hawaii imports 80-90 percent of the food eaten here every day. And every day, people like Mike Amado of Hawaii Island Meat Cooperative are working on ways to promote and enhance local agriculture. Their new mobile slaughter unit (MSU) is just one part of a comprehensive vision to help small and mid-size ranches process the meat they raise safely and affordably.
Before the end of the year, the mobile slaughter unit will start processing cattle, sheep, goats and hogs on farms islandwide and at the first collector site in South Kona. Five more sites are planned for future.
“Basically, what we want to do is create our own island-based meat economy where we don’t have to import,” said Amado. “We can allow natural production to be the primary driver and, in the end, sell high quality meat while having a fighting chance to make a living. That is a big challenge with agriculture jobs.”
Amado, from a seventh-generation cattle ranching family in Arizona, worked as a strategic operations professional before coming to the Big Island several years ago. He purchased a cattle ranch near Kukaiau, where he also manages a koa conservation and reforestation program.
Seeking a sustainable alternative to shipping cattle to mainland feedlots for finishing, he met with a co-op specialist at The Kohala Center in 2013. There he learned about the late Kawika Marquez of the Big Island Resource Conservation and Development Council, who had started exploring the possibilities of an MSU in partnership with Hawaii Island Small Business Development Center and The Kohala Center.
With only two existing meat processors — Hawaii Beef Producers in Paauilo, and Kulana Foods in Hilo — they decided that a mobile unit would be more accessible and affordable for small to mid-size ranches. MSU could also serve as the entry-level step for ranchers to ramp-up their production to levels that would be supportable by the other two facilities.
In 2011, they formed the Hawaii Island MSU Task Force, and began a 3 ½-year feasibility study and business planning effort. After Marquez passed away in 2013, the project remained on hold until Amado and the prior team were inspired to pick it up where he left off to make an action plan.
“It was a matter of developing a detailed feasibility study, and materials to use to market to potential funders and supporters, starting with Gov. Abercrombie,” Amado said. “The Department of Agriculture was the first organization to commit money, about $300,000 as a grant. Prior to that we had a few smaller, $30-40,000 grants to take the project from feasibility to a detailed business case and execution plan.”
The completed mobile slaughter unit is a tractor trailer with three compartments. One is for processing, including skinning, evisceration and processing into whole, half or quarter carcasses. The second is for refrigeration, and the third for storage of tools and equipment. Animals are stunned and brought into the MSU, and waste is collected and composted on site, or disposed of.
“We can do about nine head of cattle, or 15-20 sheep, goats or pigs per day,” Amado said. “Our goal is two days per site.”
This formula allows the MSU to be cost effective for the co-op and for ranchers. Another advantage of the unit is its specialty production capability.
“For example, custom cutting,” he said. “If you own a restaurant and want to serve lamb chops that are with a certain age range and exactly 1 ¼ inch thick, a big processor can’t interrupt their production process to make that.”
They also have what Amado calls “traceability” — the ability to tell a consumer exactly where the cut of meat comes from, how it was raised and other information.
“We have locally grown food so we can promote practices we know resonate with the consumer,” Amado said.
The MSU is just the first phase of the co-op’s over-arching plan. Phase 2 is what Amado calls “chill and cut/wrap,” in other words taking the meats from whole/half/quarter portions down to packaged cuts, ready to sell. For this part of production they are talking with the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaii Island (NELHA) in Kona.
“NELHA’s energy cost profile is the best on the island,” he said. “They are using deep sea water chilling. We need constant refrigeration, and can start the refrigeration cycle in the mid-40s, rather than ambient air temperature. It’s a research and development campus and this is a pilot project, so it’s a good marriage. Federal and state investments have already been made there. Plus, that is where most of the consumers come from, the local population as well as tourists.”
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