Haleakala Ranch Lamb


By John Cox Photos John Cox

I cannot help feeling a hint of morbid guilt as I watch the flock of sheep languidly grazing on the field below. The verdant pasture stretches like an organic quilt into the distant horizon, merging with the hazy expanse of ocean against an early summer sky. Rotund ewes, ballooned with milk, escort their still-teetering lambs between tufts of fireweed
and patches of cane grass. Dolly, a formidable Great Pyrenees mix with creamy blond coat and beguiling smile, momentarily turns her back to the flock and ambles towards me, lifting her neck upward so I can scratch her velvet ears.

As a hyperactive black sheepdog frantically zigzags, herding the flock towards me, I can see hundreds of dark eyes staring up from behind matted tangles of dense wool. Lambs press tightly against their mothers, the entire flock compressing into a single trembling organism, completely obscuring the earth below. I wonder if Dolly can smell the
traces of blood beneath my nails, the blood of two former members of her flock.The thought makes me uneasy, as the ranch foreman recounts how the seemingly docile white dog has been known to attack fullgrown deer to protect her pasture.

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Haleakala Ranch, a sprawling 30,000-acre expanse that stretches from the Kihea coast to an elevation of 8,000 feet on the volcanic slope aboveMakawao, is home to a large herd of cattle, a few hundred sheep and a handful of mismatched farm dogs. The original ranch, established in 1880, encompassed the desolate mountaintop, a moon-like
crater of bare red rock and sand. This portion of the ranch was later traded to the National Park System for more fertile land at lower elevations.

The flock of sheep had just recently been brought to the property to control invasive fireweed, a flowering weed indigenous to Africa that showed up in Hawai`i during the 1980s and is known to cause liver problems in some livestock. But sheep seem able to be able to graze on the unwanted plants, leaving cleared pasture for the ranch’s cattle.

My host, Greg Friel, is the ranch foreman and oversees every aspect of the massive operation. He exudes an aura of stoic self-confidence, a true Hawaiian paniolo, complete with sweat-stained cowboy hat, callused hands eroded from years of work and long-sleeved plaid farm shirt. In short, he is a man who commands respect.

Keeping the ranch operating smoothly is surely a daunting task, one I can’t begin to understand. In addition to the complex needs of the livestock and constant maintenance of the land, the ranch is in a bitter race against rising land values and high fuel costs. To stay relevant in today’s fast-paced world its owners rely heavily on eco-tourism to
boost both revenue and public awareness. Preserving the fragile ranchlands of Hawai`i, and the paniolo lifestyle itself, seem all but a lost battle in the path of rampant residential development and global modernization.

The neat rows of hermetically sealed bags bathed in the cold blue fluorescent lights of a supermarket display case rarely evoke emotion. Likewise, there is seldom a moment of introspection when a steak is removed from its shroud
of clear plastic and laid onto a glowing broiler. In fact, it is likely that most of us never stop to consider where these convenient blocks of marbled red flesh originate, or ever dare to associate them with the docile barnyard animals
from the stories and memories of our youth. The truth is that as a society we prefer not to know where our food comes from.

It has only been three days since I visited Haleakala Ranch and stood among a cyclone of leaping lambs. As I begin to remove the shroud of white cloth I feel a tangible weight on my shoulders. My fingers tremble as I unveil the young animal’s carcass and I remind myself that this is part of some primordial cycle that somehow keeps the world in balance, a predator-prey relationship too often disguised by distance and technology. Below its macabre surface an equilibrium exists between animals, land and humans; a symbiotic reliance.

Would the ranch exist if it were not for the animals?Would the animals exist if not for the ranch? What would the paniolos do without either one? These thoughts momentarily placate me as my hand instinctively guides a sliver of sharpened steel through the waxy layer of fat and along a hidden ridge that separates the loin from the backbone.
One unsure cut, or a moment too long in the oven, and a life goes to waste. I have a responsibility, both to the lamb and the rancher, to make sure every morsel is accounted for and appreciated.

It is our obligation as consumers to acknowledge the source of our food. Too often we overlook where our food comes from and the social, cultural and environmental impacts it has. Each meal we consume has far-reaching implications, the ability to change both lives and landscapes.

Every time we buy a piece of food, whether at a neighborhood restaurant or farmers’ market, we cast a silent ballot—a vote that dictates where and how it is produced. By blindly choosing products strictly on price we validate and encourage the mass commercial production that enables such low costs and we condone the practices of
these operations. Unfortunately, there are people who desecrate the land and who hold no regard for the animals they steward, seeing them as nothing more than a living inventory, with no regard for their physical or mental wellbeing. For these individuals profits are the only consideration.

Surprisingly these revelations have not made me a vegetarian, but they have made me a more passionate cook. My personal solace comes from a familiarity with the food I support: being able to wake up in the morning and see
cows happily grazing on open pasture outside my kitchen window or watching spring lambs frolic like puppies in a field along Crater Road. It makes me strive to perfect every dish that leaves my kitchen. From farm to plate, I know and accept where my food comes from.

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