At the Heart of Kualoa Ranch

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You may know Kualoa Ranch as the site where countless movies and television shows have been filmed, including Jurassic Park, Lost and Fifty First Dates. But to many of the ranch employees, film shoots and guest tours are the public side of the ranch that exists to keep the working ranch alive and running.

“Everybody knows us for Jurassic Park,” says Taylor Kellerman,  director of diversified agriculture and land stewardship. “But there’s really no other place like this.”

It’s easy to see why. With stunning views of mountains and ocean, Kualoa Ranch is easily one of the most photogenic places on Earth. The ranch is nearly 4,000 acres of undeveloped land that encompass the Hakipuu, Kualoa and Kaaawa valleys.

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There are other families or trusts on Oahu that own larger parcels of land in Hawaii, but Kualoa is unique because it is still a functional ranch and nature reserve without urbanization in prime Oahu real  state.

Established in 1850, the property was initially used as a sugar plantation. Ruins still stand from Oahu’s first sugar mill located near the entrance. After several years of poor rainfall, sugar planting came to a halt and cattle ranching was introduced.

Today, the ranch has more than 600 head of cattle, and harvests roughly eight animals a month. As Kellerman says, the cattle are “grass fed and grass fi nished,” meaning they are raised freerange over the grassy slopes of the ranch all the way up through harvest. Almost all cows are grass fed at some point in their lives, but not all are allowed to graze their entire lives.

The cows are rotated every fi ve to seven days through different pastures to avoid over-grazing. Most pastures offer ocean vistas or panoramic Koolau mountain range views. Given the care, location and attention they receive, these must be some of the happiest cows in the world.

Interspersed throughout the pastures are groves of papaya, bananas, pineapple and other tropical plants. The goal is to utilize as much land as is possible with diversified crops. Produce is usually sold to local markets or restaurants.

Robust chickens are rotated through groves and their eggs are collected for consumption. Their grazing is an eco-friendly way to help manage weeds and pests while providing fertilizer. This type of nature-based solution to weed and pest management is  epresentative of how Kualoa Ranch solves problems. The ranch also makes its own mulch and manure in an attempt to employ the full ecosystem Kualoa Ranch has to offer.

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Baby shrimp being prepared for transfer to a shrimp pond.

Part of that ecosystem is the Molii fi shpond. This is one of the few remaining ancient fi shponds on Oahu. It’s an estimated 800 years old and roughly 125 acres. In these historic waters, oyster farmers grow live oysters in floating cages that never rest on the bottom of the pond. Roughly 1,000 oysters are harvested weekly for local consumers and restaurant use. It is the only Department of Health certified oyster farm on Oahu.

Chickens grazing in a papaya grove
Chickens grazing in a papaya grove

Like the chickens, these oysters serve a dual purpose. “Each oyster can filter 50 gallons of water,” says Kellerman.

That helps to keep the fishpond waters clean for use by future generations. The fishpond is also home to one of Kualoa Ranch’s  ultural tours, where guests can enjoy the pond’s serenity while  earning about Hawaiian aquaculture.

Education about farming and Hawaiian history is vital to the ranch. In addition to its tours, local school groups can come to learn about nature and some of the farming work done on the ranch. While  here, local keiki (children) can visit a well-loved petting zoo where they can get a personal introduction to farm animals.

Past the petting zoo that’s used for educational purposes are several small ponds for raising Pacifi c white tiger shrimp and tilapia. One unique aspect of Kualoa shrimp is that, when restaurants or markets
call in an order, the shrimp are caught that morning and served the same day. These are some of the freshest shrimp available on Oahu.

A fresh oyster from the Molii pond on a taro leaf
A fresh oyster from the Molii pond on a taro leaf

When chefs call in an order for shrimp, oysters or tilapia, sometimes they’ll also ask for naturally occurring plants like coconut or breadfruit that grow on Kualoa Ranch but aren’t specifically farmed. “We’ll get whatever we can for you,” says Kellerman, even if that means doing some foraging to find high quality plants when requested.

Despite its size and commitment to the land, Kualoa Ranch doesn’t produce a large quantity of food.

Banana trees growing  near the edge of a mountain near a cow pasture.
Banana trees growing near the edge of a mountain near a cow pasture.

“We grow these killer quality products, but our volume isn’t huge,” says Kellerman.

That’s why Kualoa Ranch recently started food-tasting tours to give guests the opportunity to try the different foods the ranch yields. This allows visitors to see the working side of the ranch and taste the sweet and savory results of its sustainable farming.

If you’d like to try Kualoa products, prime steaks, oysters and shrimp can be ordered online and picked up at the ranch. The gift shop will sometimes carry fresh foods, and will almost always have frozen ground beef available for purchase. Burgers from the café are all from Kualoa ground beef.

Kualoa Ranch is more than a tourist attraction or Hollywood set. Chatting with employees makes it clear many feel they work the land in stewardship to maintain a part of Hawaiian history that is quickly disappearing. The owners employ four full-time staff whose sole purpose is to maintain and improve the property, often restoring streams or fields that are in disarray. These positions are completely privately funded and are one more way Kualoa Ranch attempts to keep the land timeless so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come.

On an island where space is in high demand and limited availability, Kualoa Ranch is firm in its adherence to non-urbanization and land stewardship. The ranch has evolved to be self-sustaining now that farming isn’t as economically viable as it once was.

As Kellerman says, “Every seat on a tour that’s sold keeps the land in perpetuity.”