The trickle of local milk in Hawaii that grew last year to a small flow could be on the verge of significant expansion again.
An industry veteran plans to establish a dairy on the Big Island, which if successful would become the third major milk producer in the state and the first established after a string of shutdowns over the last decade.
Mauna Kea Moo LLC recently received preliminary approval from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to lease 1,395 acres of state land in Hamakua for a dairy operation.
The company is headed by Kees Kea, former manager of the largest dairy in the state, Island Dairy.
Kea, who grew up on a family dairy farm in the Netherlands and owned a dairy in Oregon before joining Island Dairy in 2003, said he intends to produce cheese and yogurt as well as milk with perhaps 150 to 200 cows.
If successful, Mauna Kea Moo would be smaller than the state’s two largest dairies, which have roughly 600 to 800 milking cows each, but it would still significantly increase the supply of local milk and satisfy what people familiar with the industry say is tremendous consumer demand.
Grant Tomita, milk control program specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, said the wave of dairy shutdowns — eight since 1999 — created a huge void in Hawaii’s local milk supply.
“The market is certainly there,” he said. “It’ll be good for the local market if more dairies come in. There’s nothing better than fresh milk.”
Tomita roughly estimated that a little more than 80 percent of the milk consumed in Hawaii comes from the mainland.
The imports replaced production from local dairies, which closed in large part due to high feed costs and high shipping costs for the feed.
As recently as 1980, Hawaii’s dairy industry supplied the state with all its milk.
A bit of a rebound has occurred over the last couple of years as Island Dairy ramped up production and expanded distribution.
Island Dairy began supplying several retailers on Oahu, Maui and Kauai — including Foodland, Down To Earth, Whole Foods Market and Don Quijote — with its Hawaii’s Fresh brand milk last year. Before that, Island Dairy and the state’s other major milk producer, Cloverleaf Dairy, supplied only the Big Island with local milk.
Bahman Sadeghi, Island Dairy’s owner, said monthly milk production increased from about 20,000 gallons to 100,000 gallons last year, and is now approaching 250,000 gallons.
The key, he said, has been growing more food to expand the herd, which is up to 2,000 cows (800 in milk production) on 2,500 acres in Ookala.
Sadeghi said that four years ago he was 100 percent dependent on feed from the mainland. By growing his own corn to supplement grazing, Sadeghi expects to import only 20 percent of the dairy’s feed by the end of this year.
“Becoming self-sufficient in feed has been the No. 1 key to success in our expansion plans,” he said.
Sadeghi said there is definitely room for other dairy operators to grow.
Monique van der Stroom, a former manager of now-defunct 1,400-cow Pacific Dairy, founded Naked Cow Dairy on Oahu a year ago.
Naked Cow is a boutique dairy in Waianae producing cream cheese, feta cheese and flavored butters.
Van der Stroom said she plans to start bottling milk in a few months, but large-scale expansion is limited because little land is available at reasonable costs on Oahu.
“The challenge of getting large parcels of land is our biggest challenge on Oahu,” she said. “It’s kind of prohibitive for a dairy to lease land from a private landowner.”
Naked Cow operates with about 20 animals on 13 acres, and van der Stroom said her goal is to expand to 50 cows by improving pastures.
On the Big Island the land tentatively pledged to Mauna Kea Moo was once leased to Hamakua Sugar Co. but has sat fallow since 1991.
Executing a lease with Mauna Kea Moo is subject to the company and the state Board of Land and Natural Resources agreeing on fair market rent and other terms. The agency also said the company will be required to produce an environmental assessment.
Kees said part of his plan is to establish a retail store near the farm to sell cheese and yogurt under the Dutch Hawaiian Cheesery name. Milk processing is envisioned to be handled by a company such as Meadow Gold, though a contract would have to be arranged.
“We don’t know if it’s all going to work out,” he said. “We’re hoping.”