A day at the dairy

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011
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BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY

North Hawaii News

In the 1970s, there were more than 40 dairy farms in Hawaii, that produced 100 percent of the milk the state consumed. That number dropped to 15 in 1996, and today, only two dairies are still in operation with the state importihttps://www.northhawaiinews.com/files/news/ng as much as 80 percent of the milk consumed here.

after the last dairy farm on oahu (pacific dairy in the waianae valley) closed its doors in 2008, that left only two dairies on the big island — Island Dairy in Ookala, and Clover Leaf Dairy at Upolo in Hawi.

In business for over 50 years, Clover Leaf is also the oldest dairy in the state. Edward Boteilho, Jr., who, with his family owns and operates the dairy in North Kohala, explained the key to their longevity.

“I find simple is best,” he said. “The key to everything is land and water. Of all the dairies we are the only ones with land enough to raise cows in pasture, keeping everything as natural as possible.”

The cows at Clover Leaf Dairy roam 50 acres of pasture, stretching from Akoni Pule Highway down to Upolu Airport. These Jerseys and Holsteins roam and graze and breed, living healthier and longer lives than those in confinement, he said.

“Our motto here is ‘take care of the cows that take care of us,’” Boteilho said.

Clover Leaf uses no hormones or chemical sprays on their cows. A water power-wash keeps flies to a minimum, and the cows are naturally bred and calves are hand raised.

Depending on the weather, it can take more than a week for milk from California to arrive in Hawaii. The Clover Leaf cows, over 800, are milked twice a day, and average five gallons per cow. The dairy trucks 4,000 gallons of milk to Hilo five days a week, where it is processed and distributed by Meadow Gold Dairies. The hormone-free milk is packaged as Mountain Apple brand RSD (hormone) free, and “no artificial growth hormone” on the Meadow Gold label. Milk from the island, from Clover Leaf and Island Dairy is coded “CI” on the milk container.

The milk industry in Hawaii is controlled by a quota and pricing system which is established by the state. This system assures local dairies their fair share of the market and also prevents any one entity from taking over the entire market. This quota system also puts a cap on how much milk a dairy can deliver for processing each month.

A number of factors have been attributed to the decline of the dairy business in Hawaii, including the growing costs of feed grain, transportation, encroaching housing, and a deluge of mainland brands of milk. Boteilho also believes it has largely to do with how the cows are managed. When cows are kept in confinement, which at most dairies they are, there are added costs of feed grain, hormones and sprays, and the cows are prone to developing health problems.

Despite its success, Clover Leaf has also had its fair share of challenging times. The current drought — entering the seventh year — has been Boteihlo’s biggest challenge, and has re-confirmed his belief in keeping the operation as sustainable as possible. Boteilho cited high fuel costs across the board as a big factor in doing business, as well as labor strikes that have affected shipping. On top of that, in 2006, the dairy was among those whose water supply was cut off for three years when the 6.7 magnitude earthquake severely damaged the Kohala Ditch. At one point, brother Frank came to him and said, “Let’s get out of this business.”

“I’m challenged every day, but I’m very happy doing what I’m doing,” Boteilho said. “We understand how important it is to be sustainable. Agriculture is the foundation block of any culture. Sometimes we forget that.”

Clover Leaf Dairy is a family operation, owned by mother, Josephine, Edward Jr. and his six siblings. Edward Sr. moved to the Big Island from Maui in the late 1940′s. In 1962, he started a dairy with 50 cows. Fourth generation Edward Jr., his five brothers and one sister “grew up sustainable” living in a house with no electricity, milking cows, tending chickens and pigs. In 1985 Edward Sr. moved the dairy to its present location above Upolou Airport in Hawi. Edward Jr. studied animal husbandry on the mainland and took over the dairy when his father passed away 14 years ago. The Boteilho brothers are all still involved in agriculture, including brother Frank who is ranch manager at Hualalai. Sister Joanne is at the Keck Observatory.

“I still feel we’re such a powerhouse if we can stay together. Family is more important than anything else,” Boteilho said.

The diary also sells compost and replacement heifers to other beef and dairy farms. Clover Leaf has 13 employees, including one who has been with the farm for 32 years, and provides homes on the farm for seven. Nieces and nephews are among those who help out, and are learning the business.

All of this has fostered a healthy respect for nature in Boteilho. He works hard at maintaining as natural and peaceful an environment as possible for the cows.

The pasture is so idyllic, in fact, that a Chinese milk company recently flew a film crew all the way to the Big Island to film an advertisement for their milk at the dairy farm. Boteilho noted the finished product was impressive, especially with the digital insertion of a stream with fish in it to round out the scenery.

With the ocean as a backdrop, Boteilho himself has photographed the cows with a cruise ship passing in the background, and is hopeful of catching a shot of a breaching whale with a cow in the foreground.

“The cows have the sunshine, the ocean, all that’s missing is the mai tai,” Boteilho said.

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