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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Waimanalo dairy farm likely to close

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward Bureau

WAIMANALO — When Paul Yoshikawa was growing up at his grandfather's feet on a Maui dairy farm, cows were milked by hand and there was work around the clock.

As he and wife, Betty, enjoyed the front porch of their former home one last time, Paul Yoshikawa, one of the last hand milkers, contemplated life without dairy farming, something that for decades has been in his blood.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Yoshikawa, 60, has seen firsthand the revolution in milk production, with farmers now using robotic milking machines and working eight-hour shifts. There are cloned cows, embedded microchips and genetic improvements.

It is an industry, like so many others, transformed by science and technology. But with the impending closure of the Meadow Gold farm in Waimanalo, where Yoshikawa works as a foreman, the number of Hawai'i dairies continues to shrink.

The University of Hawai'i and Meadow Gold Dairies Hawai'i are working on a deal to keep the Waimanalo farm open by transferring the property to the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, which would enhance its animal science program and agriculture research programs.

The university hopes to decide whether to accept the deal by the end of this month. Meadow Gold also would purchase any milk produced there.

Yoshikawa is optimistic about the proposal, but recognizes that the way of life he grew up with has disappeared, made obsolete by dramatic change in the industry.

"The dairy life is gone," said Yoshikawa, his smile fading as he stared off into the distance.

"I'm one of the last hand milkers," he said recently, sitting — for the last time — on the porch of the home he and his wife, Betty, had shared for 32 years. "That generation is gone. When you talk about the old days to the young guys, they look at you like we were crazy to work between the cows, sit down in the pens with the bucket."

The Yoshikawa home, next to the Meadow Gold farm, is part of a close-knit 16-family community that received free housing from Meadow Gold as part of the employment package. Each of the families had to move out by Aug. 31, though work continues at the facility pending the outcome of the negotiations.

The company hired a real estate agent to help the families find homes. Its human resources department is working with employees to help with the transition.

The houses, old and in need of paint, were brought to the property when the Campos family moved its Kailua dairy to Waimanalo about 1965. The Camposes sold the farm in the late 1960s. Since then, several dairies have owned it, including Foremost, Waimanalo Dairy and Meadow Gold, which has been owned by Beatrice, Southern Foods and now Suiza Foods Corp.

The front door of the Yoshikawa home opened to a pasture and a mountain vista, where the family was treated to a cascade of waterfalls whenever it rained. A large avocado tree provided shade in the backyard where the family dog, the last of the pets to be moved, barked for attention on moving day and a rooster crowed nearby.

Next to the porch a rented U-haul truck contained the last of the furniture. The Yoshikawas were moving to a Leeward ranch they had rented, using their severance pay to fix it up. He doesn't expect to work at the dairy beyond Dec. 31.

He'll have to find another job, but that won't be easy for someone whose life has been tied so deeply to a way of life passed down through generations. Yoshikawa's grandfather, father and uncles labored on farms. Where he grew up in Kane'ohe it was "nothing but dairies," he said.

By the time he was 7 years old, he was helping out, and at 16 he could milk 59 cows in four to six hours.

"My hands were so stiff, when I came home I cannot even button my pants," said Yoshikawa, laughing at the memory.

He also laughed about a cow that "fell in love" with him, following him everywhere and always the first to greet him at the gate before milking. He chuckled at getting kicked "every day," butted in the chest by a cow and being shot at while on the night shift. The theft of farm material and feed were common, he said.

Yoshikawa tried carpentry for about four years but returned to dairy farming when he was 24.

"It was in the blood," he said. "The life is simple and easy."

But the work was hard. Once the milking was done, farm hands were expected to cut grass to feed the animals. They were supposed to have time off between the chores, but the reality was they worked for two days straight, taking meals and short rests. On the third day they were off, and spent most of the time sleeping.

All that has changed. Modern successful dairies are mechanized, said Randall Kamiya, milk control section chief in the state Department of Agriculture.

The number of Hawai'i dairies has decreased since about 50 in the 1960s to 11: six on the Big Island and five on O'ahu. Although there are fewer dairies, each cow produces more milk thanks to advances such as genetic enhancements, and the industry is healthy, said Kamiya.

Island dairy producers don't meet all of Hawai'i's needs and milk is imported, but 18 other states also import. Hawai'i dairies produce roughly 120 million pounds a year, and about 30 million pounds are imported.

"Milk in the (Hawai'i) agriculture economy ranks fourth behind pineapple, sugar and macadamia nuts," Kamiya said. "We're down to 11 (dairies) but it's a good 11. I think the future is good."

With the future of Meadow Gold's Waimanalo farm in doubt, the Hawai'i industry will have to re-evaluate itself and think of expanding on the Big Island, where land is cheaper, he said. Annual milk sales in Hawai'i total between $37 million and $40 million.

"It's important for the industry to survive," Kamiya said. "If there's no competition, prices will get out of line. We need the local competition to keep prices down."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at 234-5266 or eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com