Local Dairies Could Solve Future Milk Shortages, But It's An Expensive Venture

Hawaii Public Radio - March 7, 2019
By: 
Casey Harlow

Oʻahu’s recent milk shortage has renewed calls from state lawmakers for more local food production. But that may be easier said than done.

Milk is expected to be back on store shelves in the coming days after bad weather and mechanical issues delayed two Matson cargo ships.

In response to the shortage, state Sen. Mike Gabbard has called for distributors to have a 10-day supply of milk in the event of another shortage.

"Milk is highly perishable. Therefore, you can't store it for too long," says Grant Tomita, a milk quality control specialist with the state Department of Agriculture. "Butter and cheese you can store. Fluid milk, you can't store for long. Pasteurized milk on the shelves from Meadow Gold, I believe, has a pull date of 19 days after processing."

The shortage also highlighted the importance for the state to increase its local food production. But for dairies, there are several challenges.

"The main reason is the cost of production," said Tomita. "You know, everything is so expensive here in Hawaiʻi. And the main cost in any dairy is usually the feed cost. Feed has to be imported from wherever, and that adds a tremendous cost."

Tomita says dairies have to supplement a cow's diet with grain in order for them to produce good milk, adding "you can't just put them on pasture."

Another obstacle local dairies face are environmental challenges. In recent years, runoff pollution from Big Island Dairy has drawn numerous complaints from nearby residents. The dairy has been fined by the state Department of Health multiple times for violating the Clean Water Act, and faced a civil lawsuit. Ultimately, the owners of the dairy decided to shut down operations at the farm.

It's also the reason why Ulupono Initiative decided not to go through with a dairy farm on Kauaʻi. Instead, it plans to explore other alternatives for food production in Mahaulepu.

Tomita says only one dairy will be operating in the state after April. But he hopes others will decide to serve the islands.

"There's tremendous opportunity here because it's an open market right now," said Tomita. "But the question will be, how much do people want to spend to construct a new dairy? Or buy an existing dairy?"