“Where are the cows?”
It’s a frequent question from first-time visitors to Hawaii’s cattle ranches as they gaze out at rolling hills, forests and grass – lots and lots of grass.
“We’re grass farmers,” says James “Jimmy” Greenwell, retired president and current board member of his family-owned Palani Ranch on the western slopes of the Big Island. “Ranchers see themselves as conservationists and grass farmers. The cows are what we use to harvest the grass. The cows are a source of income and a tool to help us manage properly.”
Palani Ranch, for example, covers about 10,000 acres above Kona and has approximately 1,000 beef cows. The paniolo cowboys know precisely where the cattle are grazing on any day, but a visitor might or might not encounter them.
The vast expanse of ranch land is impossible to miss, however.
The more than 761,000 acres of ranch land scattered across five islands account for almost a fifth of Hawaii’s total land mass. Most of that land (73%) is on the Big Island, with about 14% on Maui, 6% on Kauai, 5% on Molokai and 2% on Oahu.
Hawaii’s cattle industry dates back more than two centuries when, in 1793, British explorer and Naval Capt. George Vancouver presented King Kamehameha I with a herd of Herefords. The cows roamed freely for nearly four decades until King Kamehameha III permitted ranchers to manage the herds to protect the land. Spanish vaqueros were brought in to teach local cowboys how to work the cattle and the paniolo culture was born.
Hawaii’s cattle industry admits that it has not done a good job of telling its side of the story about the impact that ranching has on other segments of the business community and on the preservation of the land it owns and oversees. For example, cattle ranching is a huge customer of the transportation industry, both inter-island and across the Pacific. Ranchers are leaders in watershed management, carbon sequestration and fire mitigation. They also provide jobs, food and preservation of the paniolo culture.
“It’s the vilifying of ranchers that we want to change,” Greenwell says.
To that end, the cattlemen are breathing new life into the Hawaii Rangeland Stewardship Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that they founded about five years ago. In April, Nicole Galase, managing director of the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, added a new role as the executive head of the foundation.
The Cattlemen’s Council and Rangeland Stewardship Foundation are separate entities. The council is a business corporation that speaks and lobbies for the industry. The foundation is a nonprofit that focuses on education, both inside and outside the industry.
Galase does not come from a ranching or agricultural background, but she sees the foundation as a logical next step in her career, which has combined business and wildlife biology. Born and raised in Hawaii, she holds a business degree from the University of Hawaii Shidler College of Business and a master of marine conservation degree from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. She has published research on marine ornithology and was project leader of a team that discovered on the slopes of Mauna Loa the first active nest in Hawaii of an endangered seabird called the band-rumped storm petrel.
“While the work I was doing was important, I want to be more invested in issues that directly affect people,” she told me. “We need to bridge the gap between conservationists and ranchers.”
Galase’s initial duties with the foundation include setting up education programs, raising funds through grants and events, and conducting the annual Cattlemen’s College in November along with the Cattlemen’s Council. She also is enlisting researchers from outside the industry to share prudent stewardship practices with the ranchers.
She says she is beginning her new job Hawaiian-style.
“We start out by just talking story,” she said. “ I’m impressed by how invested the cattlemen are.”
“The [foundation] is just getting some traction and is of immense interest to me because of my conservation background,” she added. “I see a need for conservation and ranchers to work together, and an opportunity for progress if we can see our common ground. So, in actuality, I don’t feel like I’ve left the conservation sector.”
Contact Nicole Galase at email@example.com.