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Wednesday, May 10, 2023
Axis Deer Venison: Opportunity for Hawaii Ranchers?
By Keli'i Akina PhD @ 2:11 PM :: 2417 Views :: Maui County, Agriculture

Can invasive species become part of Hawaii’s kitchen?

from Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, May 10, 2023

Hawaii’s various invasive species could be an opportunity to expand meat production, but there are a few barriers, according to Bryan Mayer, a nationally recognized meat educator and butcher who appeared on this week’s episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii.

“Hawaii has an unbelievable amount of resources to feed itself, yet we lack that processing capacity,” Mayer told program host Keliʻi Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

Mayer works with the Savory Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado, which is dedicated to regenerative and holistic farming and ranching, But he is no stranger to Hawaii’s meat industry. He lives on Oahu and previously worked with Maui Nui Venison, which Akina said is working to “turn Maui’s axis deer problem into an opportunity.”

Other invasive species that have the potential to help feed Hawaii residents include deer, goat, chicken, pig and sheep.

During the legislative session that just ended, state lawmakers briefly considered a measure to spend $4 million on a new slaughterhouse on Oahu, but that bill was shelved. However, they did approve a bill that would allow “good faith” donations of wild meat to “under-resourced communities, including the homeless,” and set up a task force to figure out how to make that happen.

Mayer said the state should also consider starting up its own system for meat inspection, since “the federal system has been more of a system of enforcement than hoping [meat processing] plants get better at what they do.” 

TRANSCRIPT

5-9-23 Keli‘i Akina hosts Bryan Mayer on “Hawaii Together”

Keliʻi Akina: Aloha, everyone, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii. I’m Keliʻi Akina, your host and the president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

Well, if you’re in agriculture, especially livestock, you know that Hawaii is plagued by invasive species. But is that a curse really, or could that be a blessing in disguise? 

On Maui, for example, there are some 60,000 axis deer, and all of Hawaii’s islands face similar challenges with deer, wild goats, chicken, pigs and sheep. But what if the state could turn these invasive species into a sustainable food source? 

Well, for that to happen, Hawaii’s meat industry might need to have some significant changes put forth by the state. It may need to change some of its rules. But I’m actually getting ahead of myself. 

Invasive species and the meat industry — that’s the topic of today’s show.

[music]

Joining me today is Bryan Mayer. Bryan is a nationally recognized educator and butcher. He works with the Savory Institute, a nonprofit organization in Boulder, Colorado, and it’s dedicated to regenerative and holistic farming and ranching. 

Bryan also recently worked with Maui Nui Venison as it worked to turn Maui’s axis deer problem into an opportunity. 

Bryan, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m looking forward to hearing from your expertise. It’s nice to have you on the program.

Bryan Mayer: Yeah, thank you very much. Aloha, and I appreciate you having me here this afternoon.

Akina: Well, you’re nationally recognized, but we’re proud to have you as a Hawaii resident here on the island of Oahu. 

Let me start with a little bit of background for our viewers. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in Hawaii’s meat industry?

Mayer: I got involved probably about 2015. I had made the acquaintance of one of the founders of a company that’s no longer in existence, unfortunately — Kunoa Cattle Company — and we worked from afar for a little bit for about three years or so. 

And finally, in October of about 2018, they asked me to come over, and I jumped at the opportunity, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been an incredible journey and an incredible experience.

Akina: You mentioned to me earlier that you’ve been involved in [the] livestock industry for much of your life now. And as your career has advanced, you’re moving from the stage in which you’re actually hands-on and more involved in consultation and teaching others.

Mayer: Yeah, you know, somebody — a very wise elder — told me once that, you know, you should hope to get to the stage where you’re more valuable for what you know than what you can actually physically do. 

And I think maybe I’m approaching that point, you know, as the younger folks come up, and they’re faster and quicker and all of that. So, yeah, you know, I think in order for our industry to grow and thrive — not just survive — we need advocacy. So I’m happy to do what I can in that front.

Akina: Well, we definitely need to be growing that level of expertise — that’s important in all industries. 

I’d like to hear a little bit about the industry as a whole before we jump into any particulars. Here in Hawaii, people generally know that we raise beef. Although I’m surprised I run into people all the time who are simply unaware of our cattle industry in the state.

 But some people do know that we send cattle to the mainland, and yet there are also other animals that we raise here in the state. Can you kind of give us a little bit of an overview?

Mayer: Yeah. Well, you know, we’ve obviously got a thriving cattle industry here, and you are correct in thinking and saying that a majority of those animals do get sent to the continent as stockers and feeders and that sort of thing. 

And that was part of Kunoa Cattle Company’s mission was to incentivize the ranchers to keep more of those animals here feeding Hawaii. You know, the system of raising an animal here to a certain age, shipping it to the continent to be slaughtered and processed and then importing it back in is just, it’s crazy, right? You know, not only for the welfare of the animal and the environmental implications of that, but just from a cost perspective.

And so we do, we have a thriving cattle industry here, a thriving hog industry here, sheep and goat through solar grazing.

But unfortunately, access to slaughter and processing here is fairly limited — certainly here on Oahu, but across the state. And the focus has pretty much been on cattle — which is great for cattle ranchers, you know, we need to support them.

But we’ve got tons of other farmers here raising hogs, raising sheep and goat, chickens and other monogastric animals as well that need access to slaughter and processing. And then on top of that, we’ve got an invasive species population of deer and wild pig.

Akina: Well, when you talk about slaughter and slaughterhouses, processing and so forth, why don’t we have these resources here? Especially if we do have a thriving cattle business and other livestock are being raised. 

You’re right: It is kind of crazy to think that we do part of the business here, send it away to the mainland for processing and slaughtering and then finish up the whole process back here in Hawaii. Why is it this way? Why is it so fractured?

Mayer: You know, and that’s not necessarily a negative thing. I mean, ranchers and farmers here have a thriving business of sending animals to the continent, and I don’t think anybody wants to get rid of that. 

But when we look at accessibility here and affordability, there definitely has to be a better system than, I think, what we have in place. And especially thinking in terms of what happens when something like a global pandemic occurs and our ports shut down or we just have lack of access. 

You know, Hawaii has an unbelievable amount of resources to feed itself, yet we lack that processing capacity — and that’s not just for animals, that’s across many, many agriculture industries.

I think part of it is what you would call a NIMBYism. You know, most people don’t want a slaughterhouse in their backyard, for a lot of reasons. 

You know, I just won’t — I can’t just easily say like, “Oh, it’s just because people are detached from agriculture and detached from their food sources.” 

I mean, there are issues and things that might, you know, make people not want those things in their backyard, and they don’t necessarily need to be.

The other thing is the economics of it — they are incredibly expensive facilities to build. 

And then the regulations: The regulations make it very, very difficult for small processors to adhere to the recordkeeping and the bookkeeping and all the things that are necessary from a government standpoint to produce a wholesome and safe product. 

And that’s the main thing, right? Like, we want an outlet for these animals, but they need to be slaughtered and processed in a way that’s wholesome and safe.

Akina: Well, we’ll come back to that a bit. I hear you saying that there is a movement afoot that people don’t necessarily want to have slaughterhouses near their residences — “not in my backyard,” as you put it. 

But when I think about that, I think of the Big Island, and somebody’s got to have an awfully large backyard if you’re talking about [laughs] the massive Big Island. I can think of lots of places where you’d be out of the sight of public, if you located some slaughterhouses. 

And you spoke about the economics of it — that’s true with virtually every industry in our state …

Mayer: Sure.

Akina: The costs and the inflation we’ve experienced. But in particular, I’m interested in what you have in mind — and I’ll come back to that later on — when you talk about government regulation. We are hearing in industry after industry that that’s a huge barrier in being able to provide the kind of resources needed for industry to survive. 

But first, let’s go back to some other animals before we get too far along — the axis deer in particular. These deer have been on the islands for more than 150 years, but their population has gotten out of control. Can you speak to what the government and the community are doing about the issue of the axis deer?

Mayer: Sure. And just to back up a little bit, you know, whether they’re a wild animal or whether they’re farmed and raised, right, it’s all about management. 

You know, nature has a way of managing wild species through apex predators and things like that, and we’ve kind of taken what we’ve learned from nature and applied that to how we have domesticated and raised livestock. 

We move them around, kind of mimicking what they used to do in the wild, you know, back on the continent when we had in excess more buffalo roaming or bison roaming than we have livestock or cattle right now.

So we can mimic those types of things. And so I think that’s really important when you look at what’s happening across the state with, say, the wild deer population. There are no large apex predators, so there’s no way to manage the density, the size of those herds. So left unchecked, like they mostly have been, they’re an ecological nightmare. 

You know, they clearcut pasture. This type of breed of deer, which is a Southeast Asian breed, evolved on grassland. So unlike deer that people might know from the continent that are kind of browsers that eat low-hanging vegetation and things like that, this particular breed of deer can thrive and survive just on grass alone. And so that’s a huge issue for farmers here, especially ruminant farmers — sheep and goat and cattle farmers — that that’s feed. 

Importing feed is such a huge cost and such a burden that it can’t enter the equation. So that’s a food source for those animals, for both the deer, but also for the cattle, the sheep and the goat, that can disappear. 

And then you’re talking about runoff, right? Those rooting systems — the grass that holds onto that soil — and so you see a lot of runoff that happens as well. 

And then just the eating of native plants and native species that could potentially go extinct.

Akina: Now, throughout the islands, are there similar efforts to turn wild goats, pigs and sheep into food sources as well?

Mayer: Well, I think, you know, the will is there. It just, again, comes down to the economics of it. You know, these wild animals fall under a classification called non-amenable species. 

So your amenable species, according to the USDA, are domesticated sheep, goat, beef cattle, you know, hogs, chickens — things like that, right? Anytime you have these sort of wild animals — bison, deer, antelope, elk — those fall under non-amenable species. And so that requires a different level of oversight, if you will. It’s not less safe or anything like that; it’s just different.

And with that comes excess costs. I mean, the operation and the costs that are associated with harvesting and processing wild venison is huge compared to what occurs, say, in a normal slaughter facility, because you’re actually going out and having to hunt those animals as opposed to those animals being raised, brought to you and then going through that system in a slaughterhouse.

Akina: Have you seen any kind of resistance from the public to using more wild game as a food source? Is there some kind of cultural psychological issue here?

Mayer: I don’t think so. I think, you know, for lots of — for folks here, you know, sustenance hunting and fishing has been a part of culture forever, right? Like most indigenous populations, or all, right? It’s part of what happens. 

You know, I think — I can’t speak for so much here, but my, what I’ve noticed throughout the years on the continent is that it’s kind of a shift in how people view hunting. And it’s changed, I think — for the better — over the past, you know, decade or so, it’s become more popular. 

You see on TV shows — the guys on “MeatEater,” lots of YouTube channels. So it’s become a more popular sort of thing. It’s become incredibly inclusive. And I think it’s drawing more people’s attention to other sources of protein that aren’t just domesticated animals: sheep, goat, cattle, hogs, that sort of thing.

Akina: You recently wrote a piece in Civil Beat — I commend you on that.

Mayer: Thank you.

Akina: You discuss something that could be part of the solution: a meat inspection program operated by the state. How is meat currently regulated by the state? And what would the benefits be of a new program? What are your suggestions?

Mayer: Wow. How much time do we have? [chuckles] 

Well, so, up until I believe — and please, somebody can correct me if I’m wrong — up until about 1977, states, you know, a lot of — most states, a lot of states — operated under a state inspection program. 

And meat inspection kind of, you know — it’s been around for quite some time. And really, the idea is to make sure that we’re producing a wholesome, safe product. We don’t want to get anybody sick. And there are, you know, there are pathogens out there that can be harmful to people. There’s salmonella, there’s E. coli — all these sorts of things. 

So a meat inspection program is ensuring safety. It’s not 100% foolproof — like anything — but it does a really great job of keeping our food safe.

Around 1977, states were given the option to move away from a state inspection program and fall under a federally inspected program. And a lot of states totally jumped at that opportunity, right? Because it would shift the financial burden away from the state to the federal government. A bunch of states still kept it. 

The thing with a state-inspected program is that it has to be equal to or greater than what occurs on the federally inspected level, in a federally inspected program. So it’s not like a way to, say, get around some oversight or do something that doesn’t occur on the federal level. It’s just a way to have the state take responsibility for it.

So on the surface, it seems like, well, why would you do that, right? Just have the federal government pick up the bill. And I think the thing that really was the impetus for me to write a response to the original article that was written in Civil Beat was that it was mentioned that there’s really no benefit to a state-inspected program. And I don’t think that’s true. 

It’s my opinion that, like, that there is. And one of the main things is there’s a financial incentive. For a well-funded company that’s got foreign investment, you know, tons of money coming in from those types of resources, it might not be something for them. 

And a company that needs to sell interstate, absolutely. A state-inspected program — anything that comes out of a state-inspected program can only be sold in state, intrastate. 

But what you get out of a in-state program is the ability for the state to make some of the rules and rules applying to the economics of it — mainly being that the state would not necessarily have to charge for that service, whereas under the federal program, it can be anywhere from $86 an hour to, I think, $230 something an hour, depending on the services they’re performing. 

Again, for a well-funded organization, that might be a drop in the bucket, nominal. But for startups, right, I think it’s really important. 

And you can’t just have one player, right? That’s not a food system, right? We see what consolidation has done for the meat system, for the, for our meat industry on the continent and across the country. It’s not good, right? 

So we need to incentivize folks to come into the game, right? We need more players. And so I think having a reduced financial barrier is important. 

And also I think, you know, I think I referred to it as folks with skin in the game. Your state inspector might be somebody that lives in your town, right? They may be your neighbor, right? They’re going to be, I think — and we’ve seen this, and there’s plenty of studies out there that have shown this, surveys taken from meat plants and workers and meat plants all over the country where they find that it’s just easier to work with a state inspector, right?

They may care a little bit more — less of an adversarial relationship, you know. The federal system — and look, I have had the opportunity to work with many great USDA inspectors throughout my career, this is not like “the federal system is bad, state is good” — but, you know, the federal system has been more of a system of enforcement than hoping plants get better at what they do. And I think that’s where a state system can really shine.

Akina: Well, I would agree with you that the local state would have the greater incentive, as well as context, for really getting behind the industry and building the industry rather than just regulating it.

Mayer: Yeah.

Akina: Now, related to this was House Bill 1382 in the legislative session that just ended. And that has passed, at least on the legislative side. It’s sitting on the desk of the governor now.

Mayer: Yeah.

Akina: You know about this bill. Tell us about House Bill 1382, and do you think Gov. [Josh] Green is going to sign it?

Mayer: Now is this — there were a few, so excuse me if I, the numbers are, I’m not recalling — but we’re speaking of funds being set aside to build a slaughter facility.

Akina: Right, yeah. As you had mentioned before, the shortage of such facilities here in the state.

[Editor’s note: HB1382, which has been transmitted to the governor, would allow “provision of wild meat to under-resourced communities, including the homeless,” and set up a task force to figure out how to do that. SB1246, which did not make it to the governor’s desk, would have allocated $4 million to the state Agribusiness Development Corp. to build a new slaughterhouse.]

Mayer: Yeah, some $4 million. And so again, for some context here, we have got one facility here — brick and mortar, if you will — on Oahu. There’s a facility in Kauai. Maui has a facility — two, I believe. Again, correct me if I’m wrong. And Hawaii Island has a handful. 

The two largest facilities in the state on Hawaii Island and here on Oahu [are] owned by one individual. That individual only cares about cattle production, and so has essentially locked out all sheep and goat producers, and it’s my opinion eventually will lock out hog producers. He’s, they have severely restricted the amount of time that hog producers can bring their animals to slaughter.

I will also mention that those two facilities are nowhere near operating at capacity — something like half. I understand that there are economic implications, right? to allowing other species to come into the plant. And that, you know, there is a lot of money associated with slaughtering cattle. But, you know, we need an outlet for these farmers and ranchers. 

So this bill [SB1246], which on the surface is a great bill — it’s something, you know, at the very least, our legislators are paying attention, right? and they’re hearing what we’re talking about.

I didn’t think it went far enough. I know it’s crazy to say, but I don’t think $4 million is enough, you know. And, you know, the money’s there. You know, I think I said in what I wrote it: It’s not necessarily about money, it’s about the will. And we need to take care of these ranchers and farmers, and so we need to create these places where they can bring these animals to.

There’s another, really, on the federal level, there’s another bill that’s been going around, and it’s been dubbed the PRIME Act. And that was put forth by, I think [U.S.] Reps. [Thomas] Massie and [Chellie] Pingree, I believe, on the House side, and on, I think on the Senate side, it was [U.S. Sens. Angus] King and [Rand] Paul. 

And one of the main things that bill did was offer up custom facilities to allow them to slaughter and process. And custom facilities operate basically under the guidelines that they can take an animal in from a farmer, and they can slaughter and process that animal only for the farmer and their family. And what the PRIME Act would do is allow these custom facilities then to slaughter and process that animal for retail, hotels, restaurants, institutions.

I don’t know if I wholly agree with that as it’s written, because I don’t think all custom facilities are ready [chuckles] for that, and I do think there needs to be some guidelines and some guardrails in there so we can continue to produce safe wholesome food. But again, these things are being talked about.

Akina: Sure. Bryan, if I could get your attention for a moment.

Mayer: Yeah, sorry.

Akina: I made a mistake earlier and fed you the wrong bill number, 1382. That one is actually about the donation of protein from meat to those in need, which is something that is prohibited right now. Could you comment about that a little bit? That got passed as well.

Mayer: Yeah, I mean we saw during the pandemic, right? the need for food — when I was with Maui Nui, I forget what the number is, but we’re talking tens of thousands, you know, maybe even close to a hundred thousand pounds of venison being donated to the food banks on Maui. And it’s a really, really important thing, especially for our most vulnerable citizens.

Akina: Yeah.

Mayer: And so to allow something like that to happen is really important. It’s — to me, it’s mind-boggling. You know, again, like, a lot of these things kind of get talked about in a vacuum where that’s, you know, they’re siloed into these things where it’s just that issue, but there’s a whole host of issues that exist around it. 

You know, so when you look at our public schools here and say like well, you know, obviously, like, things like, why isn’t there, you know, more ulu [breadfruit] on the menu, and why isn’t there wild venison or wild hog, you know, being served on those menus there?

And it’s not just about the access to it, it’s about the schools and their kitchens and can they prepare it and can they do all those sorts of things? 

And so I really, I applaud the legislators looking at these issues, but I think we’ve got to look at them also on a more broad basis as well.

Akina: Bryan, in closing, what do you think the most important thing to do about meat availability here in the islands is? What would you suggest to our legislators?

Mayer: You know, we’ve got to reduce barriers, right? So we’ve got to make it more economically feasible for folks to enter into the system. So whether that’s more bills that will help build and fund these facilities. 

And not just build them, you know, we love shiny new things, but these things have to operate, right? So what happens after year one, right? We’ve got to look to year five. How can we keep these things thriving?

We need more education, so — and that education, I truly believe needs to come through the community college system, right? So we need to train young professionals, young chefs. You know, we need all these things because, you know, you go to the — you look at these 4-H kids, what are they going to do, right? Are they going to leave here and go raise animals and go farm back on the continent? 

No. We need to incentivize them to stay here. And if I were a young farmer right now, especially if I were a young hog or sheep or goat farmer, it looks kind of bleak.

And so we need to figure out a way to not only get these facilities built or allow the current facilities to process, but we need to really incentivize folks and train folks to do this work. 

And we’ve got some — I’ve worked with them — we’ve got some really talented, passionate people here that want to feed Hawaii, so we just need a little bit more of a kick.

Akina: Well, that’s great. That’s a very positive note to end on. We really have to look to the next generation and equip them and prepare them to be able to take forward meeting the needs in our livestock industry. Bryan, thank you for being with us. Appreciate your expertise today.

Mayer: Oh, thank you. I appreciate the time to chat about it.

Akina: My guest today has been Bryan Mayer. He’s a nationally recognized educator and butcher. He’s with the Savory Institute and lives here on Oahu. 

Until next time, much aloha. I’m Keliʻi Akina. You’re watching “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii. See you again soon.

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