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The McKeehan family -- 14-year-old R.J., left, Daphne, Ron and Victoria, 8 -- started Ahualoa Hog Farm. The family knew little about raising pigs before getting started.
Learning on the job
is part of starting
your own farm
Dick Threlfall credits his wife Heather's experiments with three goats for the creation of one of the Hamakua Coast's most successful and high-value agricultural niche products: goat cheese.
The Threlfalls are among a new breed of farmer that emerged after Hamakua Sugar shut down in 1993. As more land became available, small-scale, diversified agriculture expanded.
The Threlfalls operate Hawaii Island Goat Dairy near Honokaa. What began as a hobby for Heather about 10 years ago turned into a thriving commercial business almost three years ago, when Threlfall thought he had retired.
"This whole thing started as a dream," Threlfall said.
Like many other new farmers to the area, the Threlfalls didn't know much about their product when they started; but they persevered.
"We read prolifically, and we were always on the Internet learning," Threlfall said.
At first the cheeses, both natural chevre and feta varieties, were given as gifts.
"(Heather) was making it and giving it to friends. Then some chefs we knew said if we made enough, they'd like to buy it," he said. Heather also added flavors to the chevre such as dill and garlic, macadamia nut/basil pesto, rocoto pepper, chipotle pepper and roasted garlic. Chevre takes about 24 hours to produce, whereas the feta is aged in brine for two to four weeks before it's ready for sale.
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Hogs at Ahualoa Hog Farm gather at a tub that was just filled with water. Pigs do not sweat and water helps cool them.
When they started, the couple sent out 5-pound bags of cheese to different restaurants as samples.
"Some responded, some didn't," Threlfall said.
The dairy has about 90 goats on nine acres. About 40 of them are milkers. Two part-time employees help with the milking. It's a five-day-a-week operation with a fully automated in-line milking system for goats, Threlfall said.
The goats produce about 250 pounds of cheese a week.
The Threlfalls use the same recipe for their cheese as they did when they started. Today their customers are hotels and restaurants in Hawaii and on the mainland. Any additional cheese goes to the Hilo farmers market on Saturdays, where it usually sells out very quickly, Threlfall said.
A personal relationship with the goats is a must for producing good cheese, Threlfall said.
"I bottle-raised just about all of them," he said.
When they are milked, the goats also listen to music.
"They listen to National Public Radio, but on Sundays we let them listen to jazz," he said. "We do everything to keep them happy and stress-free. That way, they give good milk."
That milk recently received high praise.
At an American Cheese Society meeting on the mainland, up against 650 other cheeses, the Threlfalls' Natural Chevre won second prize. It sells for around $10.50 a pound.
Threlfall said they have no plans to build a cheese empire, although at some point they may try other cheeses, such as brie, to see how they'll do.
Right now the money they make goes back into the business.
"We want to do it right," Threlfall said. "We don't want to get too big and get to the point where it's just numbers."
Threlfall says he also wants to keep enjoying what he does.
"In one day I may do 20 different things. It's a never-ending project but I've never been happier," he said.
Likewise, in 1994, Ron and Daphne McKeehan started their Ahualoa Hog Farm knowing very little about pigs.
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Dick Threlfall and his wife, Heather, started making goat cheese as a hobby. Now they sell 250 pounds a week.
Preparing for their daughter Victoria's first birthday luau prompted the McKeehans to start thinking about putting the 20 acres of land given to them by Daphne's father to some agricultural use.
Through much trial and error, books, the Internet, help from experts and what they say is a true passion for pigs, the McKeehans established a business and increased their herd to more than 200 hogs.
While their customers primarily have been local families planning celebrations, the McKeehans were recently approached by Kulana Foods to supply its slaughterhouse. That pork will be processed for local supermarkets.
The McKeehans are banking that customers will agree with their philosophy about raising pigs.
Apart from vaccinations, they use no hormones, growth stimulants or antibiotics commonly found in mass-produced pork. The McKeehans' pigs also eat well, dining on leftovers from area hotels prepared by the couple every day.
"We bring about a ton of food home per day and cook it up," said Ron.
While large facilities may sell 1,000 or more pigs per month, the McKeehans are shooting to grow from about 15 per month to 50 to 60 pigs per month for the next six months. Between Daphne's experience as a former medical assistant and Ron's skill as an electrician and mechanic, the couple have just about all the skills needed to run a successful family business.
"We get to use our land, help the environment and it gives our son and daughter a work ethic," said Daphne.
But can be the occasional downside to running such an operation.
"The worst was when we all caught the flu at the same time," said Daphne.
Fruit appreciation turns to business
When Richard Johnson and his wife, Jenny, bought tropical fruit farm Onomea Orchards three years ago, it was already an established farm with nine acres of mature trees like rambutan, longan, lychee, mangosteen and starfruit.
Johnson had been a senior manager at Intel Corp. in Portland, Ore., and retired in 1998. He had worked all over the world. But having spent the most time in Asia, he was familiar with the various fruits.
That didn't mean he knew how to farm them.
Luckily, the previous owners stayed around for a month to help out and train the Johnsons. There was also plenty assistance from Hawaiian Tropical Fruit Co-op members and University of Hawaii specialists.
Johnson is now president of the Hawaiian Tropical Fruit Growers Association and is also part of a consortium of growers called Hawaiian Rainbows that is trying to encourage others to pursue similar lifestyles by purchasing 550 acres of Hamakua land that can be developed into orchards.
"We want to create a community of 20- to 25-acre farms. We'll offer a nursery, orchard services and marketing," he said.
He's also part of the tropical fruit co-op, which sells the orchard products locally to places such as the large resorts on the Kona coast as well as the mainland. Johnson estimates members of the co-op will produce about 300,000 pounds of tropical fruit this year. But within five years the output should be up to about 1 million pounds, he said.
As far as the market is concerned, Johnson believes the potential is in rambutan, longan and starfruit. Mainland markets are looking for a steady supply, he said. The group has also sent samples of frozen fruit to Japan. Like other crops, the problem will be getting enough product to meet market demand. That's why he hopes others will join in.
For the farmers, the key issue is foreign competition from Asia, Johnson said. Johnson believes the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to level the playing field by not allowing fruit in that hasn't been treated for fruit flies.
"They need to keep it fair. Anything we have to do, they should have to do," he said.
Farming tests business acumen and green thumb
So, you're fed up with life working the cubicle farm, and you wanna be a real farmer?
After the end of 125 years of plantation-dominated agriculture, it's now much easier for individuals to profitably operate more than just backyard farms in Hawaii.
The change from extensive low-price plantation-type crops to diversified higher-dollar farming has cultivated a growing array of crops, livestock and value-added products across the state.
More people, from a wider variety of backgrounds, are now interested in farming. That interest has also spawned a new breed of farmer and led to a broader definition of what, exactly, is farming.
"These days, a farmer is a businessperson raising plants and animals," said Jim Hollyer, program manager at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources. "They are really agricultural entrepreneurs because what it requires to be successful is entrepreneurial. It's not enough to have a green thumb."
Like all small-business people, the new generation of farmers have had their ups and downs. But not all their problems are product- or crop-related. Some problems are common to all small businesses.
First and foremost, farmers need a business plan, Hollyer said. And it's never too late to start planning, he said.
"There's nothing wrong with stopping and saying, 'We need to get a better handle on the situation so we can be more prosperous in the future,'" he said.
Part of having an entrepreneurial mindset is having a passion for something and being prepared to do your homework, Hollyer said.
Some of the Hamakua coast's up-and-coming farmers started out knowing little about their product, but all say they read everything they could find on the subject, searched the Internet extensively for information and consulted at length with experts and those already in the business.
"You don't have to necessarily start as an expert, but you have to be willing to learn and ask questions that are sometimes embarrassing. Part of being successful is asking questions," said Hollyer.
Likewise, today's farmers need to realize they are competing in a global marketplace.
Bob Chase spent nearly a decade administering the federal Rural Economic Assistance loan program created initially to help displaced sugar workers set up their own farms.
Chase has seen both the successes and failures close up.
"Most local farmers think locally and compete locally with crops that everyone else is growing. This may be reality for some crops like lettuce for local sale, but it is the nemesis of local farming," he said.
Chase believes successful farmers are those who network within the industry and have a good understanding of how the local market relates to the larger market.
In seeking a wider market on the mainland or around the world with the chance for greater profits, UH's Hollyer notes that along with the wider reach comes an even more competitive environment.
"If you are planning to export offshore, this means you have more competitors than ever. Like never before we are in a global economy where a buyer in Venice can order coffee on his cell phone or over the Internet. That requires you to think about customer service as well as producing the best product at the lowest price," he said.
You get one chance to make an impression, Hollyer said.
"It's really easy to ruin your reputation by cutting corners," he said.
Unlike visitors who come and go, a farmer is selling to a wholesaler or retailer whose name and reputation are also on the line.
"If you do something to break that trust, you are potentially putting your entire business at risk. Even if one person hears it, it can still have a big impact," said Hollyer.
A certain amount of risk is also necessary in farming, especially if the business is to grow.
Good entrepreneurs measure their risks and make leaps that can offset the degree of uncertainty, said Hollyer.
Chase predicts that Hawaii's new farms have the potential to employ more workers and generate far greater cash flow than sugar ever did.
"The potential for income from farming in Hawaii is tremendous but only if it is approached as a business," Chase said. "Growing what you like is fine as long as someone will be there to buy it from you at a price that will pay your costs and leave you enough money to live and plant again."
The other thing to remember is that farming can be a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job -- especially when there are animals involved.
The McKeehan family, who started Ahualoa Hog Farm, found out.
"The worst was when we all caught the flu," said Ron McKeehan. "It was the feeding -- nobody felt like it."
Still, the family had to force themselves out to do farm chores and care for the hogs.
Farmers don't get paid sick days.
Farmers' hearts in growing hearts of palm
It's been almost nine years since Lesley Hill and Michael Crowell began growing hearts of palm. Today, their business, Wailea Agricultural Group in Pepeekeo, is one of the most successful agricultural enterprises on the Big Island.
About 30 percent of their crop is shipped to the mainland, bought mostly by fine-dining restaurants. Hearts of palm sell for about $7 per pound. The farm produces about 600 pounds per month.
Like others, Hill and Crowell got a leg up in the form of a matching grant of $147,000 from the federal Rural Economic Transition Act-Hawaii, or RETA-H project. They also started off on leased land, took a gamble adding infrastructure but were eventually able to purchase the property.
What they'd most like to see is others grow their crop so an industry can be developed with the same quality and standards among growers. They're encouraged that two other young Hamakua farmers in Papaaloa have taken up the challenge.
"It won't be sugar cane, but it can be a very viable export crop for Hawaii," said Hill.
The couple has other crops, such as tropical flowers and fruits, growing at several spots on the island, including their Hamakua farm. They're also experimenting with spice crops.
"We're diversified. We found you have to be," said Crowell.