Hawaii's beef producers strive to preserve their beef marketing options by turning to snack food.

Despite the beautiful lush greenery and year-round grazing opportunities on the Hawaiian islands, ranchers there often feel like their cattle are stranded on a deserted island.

Why? Access to large-scale feedlots and packing plants is 2,500 miles away — for livestock that's an eight-day boat trip.

While more than 30,000 feeder calves do make that journey to the mainland every year, Hawaii's cattle producers are still looking for other alternatives.

So, acting on the adage, “when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade,” these ranchers are making beef jerky from their grass-finished cattle.

The Journey To Beef Jerky

Because of its ample supply of grass, Hawaii's islands are home to more than 50,000 beef cows — a mix of mostly Herefords, black baldies, Brangus and some Brahman influence due to the climate.

But, finishing feeder cattle in this state with virtually no feed grain sources has always presented a challenge.

In the 1980s, grain was shipped to the islands. Then in the early '90s, the only two large feedyards in Hawaii closed.

“We went from feeding and finishing 90% of the cattle on the islands in 1992, to exporting 90% of our feeder calves in 1993,” says Lani Petrie, a past president of the Hawaii Cattlemen's Association.

Petrie is general manager of the Hawaii Cattle Producers Cooperative, which has 41 rancher members representing about 30,000 mother cows.

Hawaii cattle producers initially formed the co-op in 1984 to get more money back to the ranch gate, Petrie says. That's still their goal today.

Early on, the co-op focused on devising more efficient methods to ship their feeder cattle to the mainland. They annually send 12,000-15,000 stockers to the West Coast, where they go on grass for cheap gains before heading to mainland feedlots.

But Petrie says they soon realized shipping wasn't the only challenge. “We realized we also needed to have a market for our cattle, not to mention what to do with cull cows and bulls on the island.”

So in 1995, the cooperative began to focus on getting their beef market share back. Their solution: Kona Specialty Meats, a processing facility on the big island of Hawaii to fabricate grass-fed beef.

Like the story throughout the beef industry, the grass-finished middle meats sold themselves to the many high-end restaurants that cater to Hawaii's tourists.

“The middle meat is so easy to sell. It's the chucks and rounds that don't move,” Petrie says. So, now we are working to get our cattle to market in little packages.

She's talking about the lineup of beef jerky products the cooperative is now marketing — targeted especially toward the islands' droves of annual tourists.

Proudly bearing the title of “real Hawaiian beef,” the 2- and 4-oz. packages of beef provisions come in original, teriyaki and black pepper flavors.

“We're merchandising that which we can grow here — grass-fed beef. Our approach is to market a piece of Hawaiian history in the form of a beef product,” Petrie says.

She reports the small packages sell at duty free and gift shops for $16/lb. wholesale and $32/lb. retail. They are also tapping Asian markets.

Right now, Kona Specialty meats utilizes mostly cull cows and bulls on the islands. Currently, one-third of each carcass is utilized to make the jerky products. But there's still a lot of trim, Petrie says. So they also are developing sausage — which will include some pork — and shelf-stable beef stix.

How much meat can they move in these little packages? The co-op has an ambitious goal. “In five to 10 years we want to keep all the cattle we raise here, here,” Petrie reports.

She firmly believes it can be done. “There's a volume out there, and we are going to go get it. We just want to sell beef,” Petrie says.