Rob Parsons


Ranching in the 21st century

by Rob Parsons

May 15, 2008

Sumner Erdman

Far from the Kihei condos, West Maui traffic and the shopping malls of Kahului, there is a region of the island quite serene and sublime. Driving the winding road past Kula and Keokea into the Ulupalakua ranch lands, you find wide-open views and green pastures. Any semblance of stress is likely to disappear like a wisp of smoke dissipating into the blue sky.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ulupalakua Ranch President Sumner Erdman stood under the pavilion at the back of the spacious lawn, amid towering century-old trees that grace the grounds around the Tedeschi Vineyard Tasting Room. A wild turkey strutted across the grass, unimpressed with the 20 or so folks gathered at blue palaka (plaid)-covered picnic tables, listening to Erdman talk about ranching in the 21st century.

"We are at the place where the breadfruit ripened on the backs of people coming from where it grew, either in Kaupo, or over towards Makawao," he said (Ulu=breadfruit; pala=to ripen; kua=the back). Erdman said that in addition to native koa and `iliahi (sandalwood) forests that grew in the region, native Hawaiians mainly cultivated sweet potatoes. There just wasn't enough rainfall in the lee of 10,000 foot tall Haleakala, even for dryland kalo (taro).

Though the windward slopes of Maui's dormant volcano may collect as much as 80-100 inches of rain, Ulupalakua Ranch, stretching from sea level to 6,000 feet on the southwest flank of Haleakala, averages only 30-32 inches yearly. But they do experience perhaps 300 days a year of afternoon cloud cover, so our sunny afternoon was a welcome exception to the usual weather pattern.

Beginning in 1845, lands in the region were cultivated for corn and potatoes, primarily to be shipped to California gold miners. A decade later, ex-whaling captain James Makee acquired the land and grew sugar and other crops. The remains may still be seen of the sugar mill he built in 1861. During the Civil War, the North was cut off from sugar grown in the South, providing incentive for Makee and other entrepreneurs in Hawai`i. At one time he even tried planting cotton.

Makee moved his sugar operation to rainier Kauai in the 1870's, and cattle ranching operations began after he sold the land in 1886. The ranch was owned and operated by the Baldwin family, beginning in 1922. Harry Baldwin bought Ulupalakua Ranch with money made when they sold Lanai to James Dole.

"My dad purchased the place in 1963," Erdman said. "Back then, the economy was depressed and no bank in the Hawaiian Islands would do the financing."

According to ranch history, the peak size was around 40,000 acres, before 20,000 acres was turned back to the State of Hawai`i Department of Homelands in 1967 and the Department of Land and Natural Resources in 1997.

Pardee Erdman began to diversify the cattle ranch, bringing in sheep. In 1973 he sold a 1,000-acre parcel at Makena to the Japanese railway giant Seibu for $7.5 million-more than twice what he paid for the ranch-for golf and resort development.

Soon after, he formed a partnership with California wine-maker Emil Tedeschi, and began experimenting to see which grapes would grow best on the volcanic slope. While the vines matured, Tedeschi Vineyards marketed a successful pineapple wine, which still accounts for the majority of its sales.

"Ranch economics are extremely tough," Erdman said. "The cost of beef increases only one percent a year, while fencing costs are skyrocketing."

He says the price of wire and fence posts has caused them to innovate. They now are installing more solar powered electric fencing and less of the more-expensive barbed wire and hog wire.

They have increased their livestock and grazing numbers, yet reduced the number of ranch cowboys to six. "We brought in the Japanese Quarter Horses," Erdman said, waiting for someone to get his joke. "You know the ones with Honda and Suzuki on the front."

The use of these all-terrain vehicles allows them to reach some upper pastures, a half-day horseback ride from ranch headquarters, in as little as 15 minutes.

The use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology has also been useful. "It helps us make sure we don't put fence or a water trough in the wrong place," Erdman said. They've also been able to map the locations of plant populations, both rare native plants and troublesome invasives.

"Senecio madagascarensis is the most incredible noxious weed I have ever seen," Erdman said. Many of his pastures are dusted with the tiny yellow blossoms of fireweed, its common name, which contains alkaloids that can be toxic to cattle and horses.

"I'm not a big fan of herbicides, so we're using `biological control,'" he said. By that he meant that they have sheep-which can digest the plants-graze in fireweed-infested pastures. They also use goats for weed control.

Glycine is another plant that has found the regional climate to its liking, vining up fences and trees and throughout pastures. It was introduced to Maui back in the 1970's, as part of a University of Hawai`i project studying nitrogen-fixing plants in the tropics. While it's not easy to manage, as a legume it's high in protein and rivals alfalfa for nutritional content. To the ranch, it's an asset.

"People think we're in the cattle business," Erdman said. "We're in the grass business. We use rotational grazing. Getting that grass into a marketable package is the trick."

Ulupalakua Ranch and five other Hawai`i ranches market their beef through the Maui Cattle Company. The local, grass-fed product contains no antibiotics or artificial growth stimulants.

The Ranch Store and Deli has a following for its burgers, both Angus beef and elk, culled from a small herd of 150 brought in some years ago. Erdman joked about goats actually being better in many respects than cattle: they're market-ready in one year instead of two, are cheaper and are a "yuppie-food" gaining popularity with Whole Foods because they're high in Omega-3s and low in saturated fats.

"But there's sort of a stigma," Erdman said, grinning. "People have a different impression of cattle ranchers than they do of goat farmers."

Beyond their grazing and vineyard operations, Ulupalakua has become a welcome site for telecommunications towers, relay stations and antennae. "In most communities it's a NIMBY thing-Not In My Back Yard," he said. "I say, `Please put them in my back yard.'" He now leases space to 15 such devices.

There's also been talk of using the ranch for a renewable energy site.

"My dad started looking at alternate energy 20 to 30 years ago," Erdman said. "We're located on the volcano's southwest rift zone. We entered into a geothermal agreement back then." But an open system venting sulfurous emissions at Puna on the Big Island brought geothermal use into a controversial light, and the idea was shelved.

Recently, they've spoken to companies interested in installing wind turbines, then signed a lease agreement with Shell Wind. Originally there were plans for a 40-megawatt project, with a pump-storage hydropower unit to provide electricity on a more regular basis. Water could be pumped to an upslope reservoir with power produced when the winds blew strongly, and when the winds subsided, the water would then flow down hill, turning a turbine to generate more electricity.

But Shell's discussions with Maui Electric Company have now scrapped the "hydro-banking" component and scaled back the project proposal to around 20 megawatts of output. Shell is now proposing battery storage to even out the intermittent quality of the wind power. They are in the process of preparing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, one of 18 necessary permits.

"How do you like that?" Erdman asked. "The state says it is promoting alternative energy, but it takes 18 permits to get something done."

Unlike some other large Maui landowners, Ulupalakua Ranch has endured changing times without resorting to large-scale development, and has retained their unique sense of place. They have partnered in native plant restoration projects on their property, including work with the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership.

As Maui and the world around us continues to evolve, we may look to the adaptability of Ulupalakua Ranch to offer ideas of how we may best use our natural resources for mutual benefit, without exploiting or compromising them for future generations to enjoy.