A cowboy hat shades Bobby Farias’ eyes and his square-toed boots make imprints as he walks across the dirt at a Kunoa Cattle Co. ranch on Kaua‘i. He jumps in his truck and drives toward a herd of cattle grazing in what could arguably be the most beautiful location in Lihu‘e surrounded by jade mountains and endless fields. Cattle peer at him with innate curiosity, albeit a touch of caution, as he climbs out of the vehicle and calls to them. They steadily make their way closer, their big, brown eyes peering at him with interest.
Farias is a third-generation paniolo (cowboy), champion team roper and co-founder of the Kunoa Cattle Co., which includes more than 4,000 acres of land on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu with some 2,000 head of cattle. While he hung up his cowboy hat for about two decades to follow a different career path as a property manager, he got roped back into his family’s ranching legacy during the early 2000s after acquiring land in Kapa‘a.
Now, the operation he co-founded with CEO Jack Beuttell, which has since been named Kunoa Cattle Co., is reaching phenomenal local foodindustry heights. One reason is because Farias understood that the process of raising cattle required feedback from customers. He realized that information wasn’t trickling back to him or other ranchers from buyers and he was determined to close that gap. He recognized that the “producer” or rancher went through three years of work raising cattle to a “finished market animal” but never knew what the final pay-back would be.
“He or she takes all the risks, and they have no idea what the outcome’s going to be,” Farias says. “We decided that if we’re going to stay in ranching, we’ve got to be part of the end product so that we can be part of the decision-making. We are the sellers, we have to go find the buyers.”
So, Farias began pounding the pavement becoming his own broker. A decade later and Kunoa Cattle Co. is now distributing its meat to several O‘ahu restaurants, including d.k. Steak House and Mahina & Sun’s in Waikiki.
He helps make this possible by aggregating large quantities of calves from other ranchers, who may not be able to take them all the way to finish due to a number of factors like drought. He hosts them so they can be finished in Hawai‘i or until they are ready to continue to the Mainland. Kunoa Cattle Co. currently purchases cattle from about three dozen ranchers statewide.
“Kunoa is an evolution of the ranching business, in that Kunoa brings the aggregator part to the table,” says Beuttell. “A lot of Hawai‘i ranchers can just concentrate on ranching and call Kunoa to continue them through the business chain so there is a positive economic impact for them.”
Another way Kunoa Cattle Co. has carried on Farias’ mission to help ranchers stay afloat is by providing processing services at the only USDA-inspected livestock harvest facility on O‘ahu, which the business purchased in 2016. The facility, located in Kapolei, processes more than 100 animals per month, but is capable of handling about 12,000 cattle and 48,000 hogs annually. Achieving this would help create an all-around more sustainable food industry, as Hawai‘i falls severely short in meat-processing infrastructure.
“We need five more Kunoas,” says Farias.
Kunoa Cattle Co. is working with lawmakers and ranchers statewide to develop a supply chain for local meats so that fewer animals need to be sent to the Mainland for processing. Currently, tens of thousands of calves are shipped to California or Texas each year, where they mature and are harvested and sent back— even though there’s no way of knowing for certain if the meat that’s returned is from the same animals. But even if all of Hawai‘i’s cattle stayed in the state until maturity and were processed locally, it would only account for a small percentage of the total meat consumption in the Islands. With more than a million fallow acres in the state, Farias says there’s plenty of room for alternative possibilities, and Kunoa Cattle Co. wants to pick up those reins.
“If all the ranchers could grow by just 5 percent each year, then we maybe could really take a big bite out of that red protein food security in Hawai‘i,” says Farias.
Moreover, cattle that get to live stress-free days grazing on grass in mild weather conditions in Hawai‘i provide a healthier final product. And a grass-fed diet also allows for a robust beef flavor profile that is higher in omega-three fats, has higher beta carotene as well as vitamins B and E.
“… it’s like the experience of terroir (meaning soil/earth) in wine, with pasture-raised beef, the minerality of the volcanic soil and the traits of the grasses carry through to the beef,” says Beuttell. “These cattle spend their entire lives in Hawai‘i, with no added hormones or antibiotics.”
It’s easy to tell that Farias and Beuttell are passionate about keeping food on the Islands. And if they continue on their current path, their dreams of keeping beef in Hawai‘i throughout the entire process might just come true.
“This is all about building more food sustainability,” says Farias.
Visit kunoacattle.com for more information.
*PHOTOS BY PATRICK WILK