LIHUE — Following a sometimes tense hour-long discussion Thursday morning on Ulupono Initiative’s proposed dairy operation in Mahaulepu, 15-year-old Talia Abrams raised her hand to ask a question.
What is the biggest issue “at the moment,” with the project, she said to company spokeswoman Amy Hennessey.
It didn’t take Hennessey long to answer: “Helping the community understand the design so they feel comfortable with it,” she said.
Based on comments during the monthly meeting of the Lihue Business Association, that won’t be easily done.
A larger-than-usual crowd of about 50 people attended the gathering at Duke’s Canoe Club to hear the latest plans for the $17.5 million Hawaii Dairy Farms project. Concerns were many, including risks to the environment and economy, the location of the farm, and an onslaught of flies, smell and pollution on the South Shore.
Pat Griffin, LBA president, ended the meeting when she sensed it was getting a little too confrontational. She said she wasn’t surprised by the tone, saying it’s a passionate issue for both sides.
“We, on this island, care deeply about our environment and protecting it and our neighbors at the same time. We believe in agriculture and sustainabilty,” she said. “How do the two merge together so all benefit?
Few accepted assurances that the operation of about 1,800 cattle on a total of 582 acres leased from Grove Farm Co. was being designed with best practices and would not pose problems.
Afterward, Eileen Kechkloian wasn’t satisfied with what she heard.
“They wouldn’t really answer any questions. They skirted all the questions.’’
Rich Hoeppner questioned what happens if the ocean winds up being polluted by runoff including urine and manure from the dairy farm.
“I haven’t heard any answers yet what happens if there is pollution,” he said.
“I don’t believe there’s a dairy around with this many head of cattle on this small of acreage. It is experimental. We’re being experimented with right there and our ocean could be affected. And if it’s affected, how would we get the cows off the island to stop the problem. I don’t know what you can do, and you don’t either.”
Diann Hartman, spokeswoman for the nearby Grand Hyatt, questioned whether there were any dairy farms with such a high density of cows to acreage within two miles of the ocean and three of a thriving economic center.
“It’s good that they’re listening,” she said of Hennessey and Doyle Waybright, construction manager for the project. “I am certainly disappointed by the location that’s been chosen by Grove Farm.”
Hennessey and Waybright fielded the questions as they came. Sometimes with specific answers, sometimes, not. Several times, Hennessey said she couldn’t recall specific numbers off the top of her head, and others she said studies were done or were being done and different options were still being considered.
But she repeatedly assured the crowd they plan to be good stewards of the land, welcomed testing and monitoring and plan to meet or exceed state and federal requirements. They are considering installing monitors to check water quality as it enters and leaves the farm land. She said they conducted studies based on historic rainfall numbers and are confident effluent won’t leave the site.
“Believe you me, it will be closely monitored,” Waybright said. “Milk production is one of the most heavily regulated industries and food groups there is in our country.”
Waybright said the cattle will be rotated on 119, two- to three-acre paddocks. It’s based on New Zealand models. Each cow is estimated to create 110 pounds daily of urine and feces.
Hennessey told Hartman smell from the dairy farm won’t be an issue at the Hyatt.
“I’d really be willing to make a wager,” she said.
Hennessey said they are still considering different biological controls, including beetles and chickens, as well.
“We’re looking at all the options we can to make sure there are no flies,” she said.
Mike Tresler, senior vice president of Grove Farm Co., said they worked on the project six and a half years and strongly defended it.
“All these concerns, all the nonsense, just bad information, it’s terrible,” he said. “I’m tired of it.”
He said it will offer a superior method of farming and provide milk needed to make Kauai self-sufficient.
The dairy is expected to produce 3.7 million gallons per year and provide 10 to 15 full-time jobs.
“What they’ve done is put together a world-class, best-in-the world, type of project,” he said.
Jerry Ornellas, Kauai Farm Bureau president, said the site of the proposed dairy farm is agricultural land by designation and said a dairy farm is its intended use.
Kauai, he said, is dependent on tourism and must diversify its economy.
“This project is going to help us do that.”
Ornellas later said he was “a little dismayed at the amount of opposition to what is basically an agricultural endeavor.”
“Supposedly, this is a business association meeting,” he said. “It didn’t sound like a meeting of business people, did it?”