How one woman decided to keep dairy farming alive on an island where the practice has nearly disappeared.
Driving down the isolated roads in Waianae, O'ahu, you’re flanked all sides by lush green mountains. A vast sky streaked with clouds stretches above you. There are very few sounds, except for the gentle clucking of loose chickens. There are no buildings taller than a two-story home, only the occasional passing car, and not another person in sight. Turn down a dirt road marked by little more than a small sign, however, and you’ll come across one of the island’s most extraordinary establishments: The Naked Cow dairy farm, which is owned and operated almost exclusively by women. It’s also the last remaining dairy farm on O'ahu. And it’s thriving.
The day that I dropped by Naked Cow, Monique van der Stroom, the owner, and her sister Jenny, who co-manages the dairy, greeted my tour group under a tall tree. The pair said it's lonely working on a dairy farm in Hawaii these days, before taking us through a gate and into a grassy area where they keep their smaller livestock: a swarm of chickens, sheep, lambs and goats. Van der Stroom joked casually about castrating the male livestock, which are usually slaughtered for their meat, while bottle-feeding one of the lambs. "Don't get too attached," she warned, as we stroked its soft, puffy fur.
Naked Cow is just 45 minutes outside of Honolulu, nestled inside this stunning landscape. Van der Stroom and her small team built the creamery ten years ago, where they now process and pasteurize their own milk (instead of going through a third party). Another Monique makes Naked Cow’s butter, while a woman named Chantelle serves as the dairy’s resident cheese maker. Their colleague Tiffany operates a small farmer’s market where Naked Cow's products are sold. Only one man works on the farm, as an accountant (aside from the occasional assistant who stops by to churn the cheese curds). But the hierarchy is very loosely defined at Naked Cow, given how few people are on the team. Van der Stroom assured us that everyone is willing to “wash dishes if we need to.”
During the tour, Van der Stroom explained that 25 years ago, there were around 17 dairy farms on O’ahu. Now Naked Cow is the only one left (there are a total of three dairy farms operating in the entire state). The trouble began when prices of milk imported from the mainland began to drop—as van der Stroom puts it, “You can buy a gallon of milk at Costco for $3.” High manufacturing costs coupled with those low prices at big chains drove small, independent dairies on the islands out of business. But where other people saw a dying industry, van der Stroom saw opportunity. She opened Naked Cow in 2007, the same year that she closed Pacific Dairy for the owners, which she had been managing before it shuttered. Instead of accepting a cash severance, she took some of its equipment and cows.
Today, Naked Cow dairy is home to just 20 cows. They are free of antibiotics and hormones, and used primarily for milk, not their meat. The dairy produces around 600 pounds of cheese, and 800 pounds of butter every month. Her operation is not certified organic because to receive that designation, the whole valley where the farm is located would have to be certified. For such a small farm, it’s just not a financially viable option. Still, the farm’s chickens, goats, and sheep could be considered free range—in that they have free reign to wander around the farm’s grounds.
In a 2015 interview, van der Stroom commented that some people thought she was “crazy” for starting her own dairy after closing one down, but she credits the farm-to-table movement, and the growing desire for locally sourced food, as one of the reasons she’s been able to stay in business. To remain solvent, van der Stroom has to stay resourcesful, of course—the dairy's aging room for its cheese is a repurposed 1963 Chevy freezer box pick-up truck that van der Stroom found abandoned in some bushes. Still, Naked Cow has found its place in the all-natural food movement: Its products are now available at Whole Foods, and it supplies cheese and butter to 20 restaurants across Hawaii, as well as one cheese shop in California.
Van der Stroom hopes to keep growing Naked Cow, perhaps even expanding to sell beef someday. She doesn't seem to think she's started a dairy farm revival in Oahu, though. Van der Stroom is clearly one of the last of her kind, a dedicated farmer who has watched her life's passion dwindle and disappear on the Hawaiian islands. Its only thanks to her single-minded determination that the dairy farming practice on O'ahu has yet to go extinct.