The Surfing Goat Dairy in Kula is under assault - like most Upcountry agricultural operations - because of unyielding and costly drought conditions for the past several years, the dairy owner said.
The dairy, which opened in 2002 and creates a variety of artisan cheeses and dessert truffles, also operates tours and hosts events.
Thomas Kafsack, owner of the 42-acre dairy with his wife, Eva, said they have had to purchase millions of gallons of water annually to run irrigation around the clock to keep everything afloat. Surfing Goat, two-thirds of which is pasture, also has had to resort to buying feed, fresh-cut grass and even adding others' curds.
Banjo, a Swiss saanen goat that is one of Surfing Goat Dairy’s top milk producers, munches on cut feed Friday afternoon in Kula. A drought that has dried the goats’ pasture has forced the dairy’s owners to purchase feed and fresh-cut grass.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
And they are not alone in having to get creative to get by, Kafsack and other Upcountry farmers and ranchers said Friday.
They have no intention of quitting, though, Kafsack said of the growing operation that hosts 50,000 visitors a year. His 15 employees, none of whom he's laid off, help produce 65 pounds of cheese daily in addition to other services.
Kafsack said that he would even dip into his savings from the software industry to keep Surfing Goat going.
"We have to try even harder to offer new products, tours and merchandise so we can extend our revenue," Kafsack said.
Kula rainfall is down by 56 percent on average from January to July, according to the National Weather Service. In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated Maui County a "primary natural disaster area" because of four years of drought.
"There's no two ways about it, we're in bad shape - all of us are. 'Disaster' would be an adequate word," said Ulupalakua Ranch President Sumner Erdman. "But we'll still be here."
"There are no signs of immediate relief coming for those folks either," said Kevin Kodama, a National Weather Service hydrologist.
The wet season typically runs from October to April. From January to July, Kula received just 7.3 inches of rain, Kodama said. The average rainfall is 13.1 inches.
"I think overall, the farmers are maintaining," said Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau. "They'd like to increase their crops, but no water is holding them back."
So Upcountry farmers are forced to bring in water any way they can, by pipe, pump or truck - and at a price, Watanabe said. The county could help with new infrastructure and more ag parks, but that would cost the taxpayers, he said.
Kafsack said he must buy grain, too, but those costs continue to jump as the Mainland's own droughts destroy feed sources.
"Our total expenses in the first six months of 2012 increased by 45 percent compared to an 11 percent increase of revenue," he said, which puts them in the red, although he doesn't have complete figures yet.
As a result, the dairy cannot add to its herd, he said. Currently, the Kafsacks have three studs, about 80 milking does and a half-dozen kids.
The USDA's Hawaii Weekly Crop Report said that over the past couple months, rainfall has grown little to no forage in the fields. In addition, more invasive species, such as axis deer, quickly devour what springs up.
Erdman said this ranch has had to sell off 800 head of cattle and counting because of the drought; wild animals, such as deer, boars and goats; and feed prices. They've also lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars on cattle, easy," he said of the ranch that had more than 3,000 head until recently.
No farmers have gone out of business, though, Watanabe said. Traditionally, Upcountry and Kula, in particular, is Maui's agricultural breadbasket because while not naturally wet, the area on the slopes of Haleakala is cool, he explained.
The rain does come and go, too, Kodama said.
Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm General Manager Koa Chang said the farm is getting by fine because years ago his father, Ali'i, chose to plant drought-resistant plants, such as lavender and protea. But the drought has made it hard to grow ground cover to prevent erosion, he said.
"But what we've done was done by design, so we expect to be a little better off," Chang said, also noting the lavender farm's expansion into tours, event hosting and producing "value-added products" like lavender-infused honey.
Surfing Goat and Ulupalakua Ranch and other operations do much the same, like make wine, grow olives, tout "agri-tourism" and sell retail and meals on site. Erdman noted that the ranch also is heavily invested in a large wind farm project.
"The drought is a big reason why we have diversified," Erdman said.
Gerry Ross, co-owner of Kupa'a Farms in Kula, also offers tours. He said the farm's water bills have doubled for the 16-acre pasture, vegetable and fruit tree operation.
"The first impact of the drought this year is we'll probably have 75 percent lower coffee yields without getting the late-season rains we needed to trigger flower growth," he said. "We'll be lucky to get 150 pounds of green beans this year."
However, Ross said the farm sells all it grows.
"The market for our products is really under-saturated," he said.
Another drought problem is that rain washes off the leaves and mites that left unabated literally eat into profits, Ross said.
"We are surviving," he said of his diversified, organic farm. "And we would buy more land if it was available."
Surfing Goat's products can be found at local and Mainland retailers, gourmet food and wine shops and in Maui restaurant and hotel dishes. On a more positive note, Surfing Goat reported that sales of its new goat cheese chocolate truffles have more than doubled in a year, Kafsack said.
The farm's cheeses and other foods also are "Certified Humane" by the Humane Farm Animal Care program, a labeling program dedicated to improving the welfare of farm animals in food production, including all stages of the animal's life from handling to slaughter.
Kafsack doesn't know where the solution will come from, but hopefully it will involve a whole lot of rain and soon, he said.
* Surfing Goat Dairy, go to www.surfinggoatdairy.com or call 878-2870.
* Kupa'a Farms, go to kupaafarms.blogspot.com or call 876-0678.
* Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, go to www.aklmaui.com or call 878-3004.
* Ulupalakua Ranch, go to www.ulupalakuaranch.com or call 878-1202.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.