Paniolo country: Taste of the Hawaiian Range .
Image: Martha Cheng

A nose-to-tail showcase at Taste of the Hawaiian Range

“We did not want to make a foodie event or put on a party, that was never our intent,” says Milton Yamasaki, manager of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Mealani Research Station in Waimea. “We put on a show…but the whole thing, I cannot emphasize enough, is about education.”

At its inception in 1995, Taste of the Hawaiian Range (TOHR) was part of an educational program to promote Hawaii-raised, grass-finished beef to ranchers, chefs and consumers. “Grass-finished” is a more precise term for beef that has been raised its whole life on grass; technically, all cattle, even those destined for feedlots, start out grass-fed.

Fifteen years later, TOHR now showcases Big Island agriculture and a variety of range-fed meats. Inevitably, the combination of food, ranchers, chefs and eaters make for quite a fete, a “foodie event” even.

A different kind of festival

TOHR is different from the majority of Hawaii’s food festivals. Cowboy hats and boots mark the crowd–a reminder of Hawaii’s still-present paniolo culture. And, most notably, there’s the nose-to-tail celebration of Hawaii-raised beef, lamb, mutton and wild boar, as prepared by chefs from restaurants including Town, Merriman’s and Roy’s. Whole hogs are roasted on a spit. Chefs are assigned parts of the animals, including the more common cuts like sirloin, tri-tip, and chuck in addition to the tongue, cheek and infamous “Rocky Mountain Oysters” (aka bull testicles).

“We need to utilize the whole animal,” Yamasaki says. “The whole animal has value to the producer. If [chefs] are just going to take the high-end cuts and the rest is going to ground meat, then the value of the animal will go down. Different cuts of the animal will taste different. It gives a lot of variety.”

TOHR is one of the few places in the state to sample the rich beefiness of flap meat; the slightly cartilaginous, yet tenderness of tongue; and the soft, fattiness of bull testicles, all in a resort setting. There’s ground beef and top round for the more squeamish, but ignoring the less familiar cuts sort of misses the point of whole-animal eating.

Keeping cattle in Hawaii

In today’s Michael Pollan-fueled clamor for grass-fed beef, it’s hard to imagine the need more education about pasture-raised meat. But when TOHR began, almost all of Hawaii’s livestock was shipped to the continental United States to be finished in feedlots, partly because there was no market for grass-finished beef and partly because the profit margins were higher in selling calves to feedlots than in raising cattle on pasture space for 24 to 30 months until they were market-weight.

As a result, “we had no control over a lot of factors,” says Yamasaki. “For example, shipping costs, transportation, fuel, events that happened on the mainland that would affect prices.”

At one time, the price of calves shipped to the mainland dropped from a dollar a pound to 18 cents a pound, and when mad cow disease hit in the continental United States, it affected Hawaii’s industry as well, despite its being several thousand miles away from the outbreak.

“With all of these uncontrollable things that can impact the price, I always felt that we need to independently position our industry,” Yamasaki says. “We should really try to position ourselves so that we are producing and finishing and going from field to plate right here in Hawaii.”

In addition to giving ranchers more control over the prices of their cattle to command a living wage, finishing cattle in Hawaii can benefit more than just the ranchers. “Having a lot of animals processed here means more people being hired,” Yamasaki says. “There’s a trickle-down effect. The economic impact would be magnified many times over.”

Keeping cattle in Hawaii helps slaughterhouses become more productive and creates a waste-management industry in which bones, innards and offals–the byproducts of slaughter–can be recycled into fertilizer for farms.

To keep our beef here, Mealani Research Station looked to develop a grass-finished beef market. TOHR addresses the consumer side of such a market, while Mealani invites ranchers to its station to share research findings. It turns out that raising a consistently high-quality, tender product on grass isn’t as easy as it sounds, despite cattle’s penchant for grazing and rumination. It requires knowledge of specific grasses, pasture rotation, cattle genetics–at least if you want beef that fattens efficiently and that’s palatable to most consumers.

At Mealani, researchers analyze cattle genetics to find the breeds best suited to the climate. They evaluate intensive grazing techniques so cattle can get the most nutrition out of the least acreage of grass; as part of the intensive grazing program, steers, heifers and cows are rotated daily so that the steers eat the top of the grass, with the highest protein content. Heifers (young cows that have not given birth to calves) graze next, followed by the cows. Mealani also researches tropical grasses to find forages that grow well and that provide good nutrition for the cattle.

Mealani’s push to keep cattle in Hawaii has seen success: Whereas before “hardly any animals went to slaughter, now [there’s] a six-to-eight-month waiting list to get your animals slaughtered,” Yamasaki says. But there’s still a ways to go to develop both the consumer and producer markets; the majority of cattle in Hawaii still goes to feedlots on the continental United States.

Blueberries, cherries, olive oil: grown in Hawaii

While meats command most of the event’s attention and plates, TOHR also provides a glimpse into the future of diversified agriculture in Hawaii. In previous years, TOHR showcased Mealani’s experimental crops, including tea and blueberries.

“We have 11 of the 13 climactic zones in the world on this island alone,” Yamasaki says. “So we can grow practically anything.”

Mealani is one of CTAHR’s five Big Island research stations managed by Yamasaki. Each location has its own micro-climate and projects, such as the evaluation of tropical orchard crops in Kona, while the Lalamilo station is planning future experiments with Bing and Rainier cherries, and–what Yamasaki’s particularly excited about–olives, in the hopes of producing olive oil. Perhaps soon, Hawaii olive oil will be a part of the Hawaiian range.

Taste of the Hawaiian Range, Sept.10, 6-8pm, Hilton Waikoloa Village, Big Island. Price: $40 pre-sale, $60 at the door. []