Is Hawaii's Cowboy Legacy On the Brink of Extinction?

Tears sparkle in R. "Sonny" Keakealani Jr.'s rich brown eyes when he talks about the land he loves and the work he has done for a living since he was 17. Sinewy, tan, and silver-haired, he is a paniolo - a Hawaiian cowboy whose life is inextricably linked with culture of the islands.

"Deep in their heart they've got pride," he says of paniolos, touching his fist to his chest. "We feel the land. We chose this life."

Mr. Keakealani learned his trade chasing wild cattle on horseback over wet, slippery, often treacherous lava rock. He learned from his father, who in turn learned from his, and so the legacy stretches for six generations, to the granddaughter, La'akea, perched on his knee.

The cowboy legacy that Keakealani embodies began in 1843, when King Kamehamea III hired Spanish cowboys to teach Hawaiians their skills. Indeed, it touches the islands' culture so deeply that Gov. Ben Cayetano has proclaimed 1998 "The Year of the Paniolo." Yet the paniolo way of life is under siege. Faced with many of the same problems that beef growers on the mainland have, Hawaii ranchers must also deal with the unique challenges of ranching on a remote Pacific island.

"I would like to see ranching continue here because it is a part of Hawaii, because it keeps the land open and green, and because it gives visitors an opportunity to experience something they don't have," says Herbert Montague Richards III, a rancher on the Big Island. "But how long can we afford to ranch? How long will we be able to support a lifestyle?"

For now, the answers are unclear. Recently, advances in packaging have made it cheaper for consumers to buy fresh beef imported from the mainland than to pay a premium for fresher Hawaiian beef - and so they have. Hawaii cattle sales plummeted from $29.2 million in 1992 to $14.6 million in 1995, and since the 1980s, the percentage of beef eaten on the islands that comes from Hawaiian ranches has dropped from 30 to 5 percent.

With less demand for local beef and political pressure from Hawaii's strong coalition of environmentalists, the last feedlots and packing houses owned by the major ranches closed in 1990.

Now most calves born on Hawaiian soil are shipped to the mainland to graze and get ready for market - a development that further cuts into ranchers' pocketbooks. In fact, the cost of transporting a cow 3,000 miles across the Pacific equals about half of the value of the animal.

Part of the problem, say local cattlemen, is a 77-year-old law that says only US ships and crews can carry goods between US ports. The law cuts down on competition, fostering high prices and poor service, the ranchers say.

Other factors have also eroded the bottom line. Not only do cattle gain weight more slowly on Hawaii's tropical grasses, but the state's ranchers also confront the problems that beset the beef industry everywhere - increasing competition from other types of meat and less trade protection from beef produced in other countries.

"It is tough to make a living today," says livestock manager Robert Hind III. "I feel the weight of the next 150 years and how to responsibly take the ranch onward."

Still, some ranches are pushing forward with new ideas. Parker Ranch, the oldest and largest privately owned ranch in the United States, will release beef labeled "Parker Ranch Angus Pride" in January. And because of its size - Parker Ranch covers roughly 200,000 acres and accounts for more than a quarter of the state's 81,000 cows - most of Hawaii's smaller cattle producers may follow Parker's lead.

But some see the answer to Hawaii's beef-industry woes only in selling locally. In an effort to regain the market share lost to mainland imports, the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service is promoting a campaign to educate consumers regarding the quality of the local, grass-fed beef. A logo sprouting a daisy and the words "Island Fresh" will help shoppers identify the product.

To Keakealani, who works on the Parker Ranch, the future of his way of life is at stake, and he is determined to continue on. "You're so proud you ride on something like this everyday," he says, pointing towards velvet-green meadows sprinkled with white clover. "As long as my backyard is there, there will be cattle."

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