Hawaii residents would buy more local eggs if they could find them — and they’re willing to pay a premium for freshness, a recent food sustainability survey shows.
That finding meshes nicely with plans for a solar-powered egg farm in central Oahu that would start with 300,000 hens and possibly expand to 1 million egg-layers.
It would move the islands closer to self-sufficiency in egg production and consumption, something Hawaii hasn’t experienced since the 1970s.
A partnership involving two of the biggest players in America’s egg industry, California’s Hidden Villa Ranch and Indiana’s Rose Acre Farms, is looking to finalize plans in the next few months for the facility in Wahiawa.
The venture might actually benefit smaller local egg farms, a food sustainability expert said, although at least one farmer worries about a possible glut.
The price of eggs is rising nationwide — it’s up about 25 percent at some Hawaii grocery stores since March — because of an avian-flu outbreak that has killed nearly 48 million chickens and turkeys throughout the country.
The outbreak has cost farmers across the nation roughly 12 percent of their flocks since December 2014, which has caused egg shortages and rationing in some parts of the country, according to a study by Iowa State University’s Egg Industry Center.
Experts say that chickens in Hawaii are susceptible to local diseases, but island chicken farms could be less vulnerable to mainland bird viruses because of the islands’ geographic isolation and strict quarantine laws.
“There’s plenty of room in the market for the large and small to co-exist.” — Kyle Datta, Ulupono Initiative
The Wahiawa venture would increase local food sustainability and promote Hawaii’s agricultural economy, said Michael Sencer, vice president of Hidden Villa Ranch, one of the largest egg distributors in the U.S. Its partner, Rose Acre Farms, is one of the nation’s biggest egg producers.
The companies plan to build a state-of-the-art barn and start with 300,000 hens housed in cage-free enclosures that resemble large carports, Sencer said. During the laying cycle, a hen produces about one egg per day, he said.
The farm would be solar-powered, which would make it different than other operations in the U.S., Sencer said. Lower electricity costs could help lower the cost of eggs, he said.
Also, rooftop solar panels would absorb the sun’s heat, making the temperature within the facility more comfortable for the hens, Sencer said.
Because of Hawaii’s steady climate and warmth, the enclosures would provide fresh air and sunlight, Sencer said. Instead of the insulated walls common in most operations, there would be curtains that could be rolled up to increase air circulation.
The companies plan to finalize their general plan for the farm within the next two to six months. They don’t have a specific timeline for construction, but a well has been drilled on land purchased from Dole Food Co. in Wahiawa, Sencer said.
There’s a big demand for local eggs in the state, and not enough supply.
In 1970, there were about 240 egg farms in Hawaii, according to the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism. The state was actually self-sufficient in eggs for most of that decade.
But by 2009, only 100 eggs farms were still operating in the islands, according to a 2012 report by the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism. Now, there are only four egg farms in Hawaii.
On average, a dozen eggs costs $1.96 on the mainland, according to May 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Hawaii, mainland eggs can cost from 46 to 93 percent more, or up to $3.78 a dozen, according to an analysis by Civil Beat.
“We decided, why not just produce them right here in Hawaii?” Sencer said.
The egg farm could provide Hawaii with cheaper, fresher eggs, all of which would go straight to Hawaii’s supermarkets, he said, adding he couldn’t provide a price estimate at this point.
Hawaii eggs are usually on grocery store shelves within three or four days, compared to two or three weeks for mainland eggs, according to a study by the Ulupono Initiative, which works to boost Hawaii’s food sustainability. Local eggs are bigger and have brighter yolks.
Ulupono found that residents want to buy local eggs, even if they cost up to a $1.50 more per dozen (up to $5.28). It also found that consumers’ incomes and where they live has no effect on their preference.
“There’s plenty of room for all these … chicken ventures to expand,” said Kyle Datta, a general partner at Ulupono. “There’s plenty of room in the market for the large and small to co-exist. We don’t think (the proposed farm is) going to be a threat to the small guys.”
In fact, a larger farm could actually help smaller operations, Datta said, by spurring local grain production.
Right now, the cost of buying and importing chicken feed stands in the way of success for many local egg farmers, said Datta. Most local farmers ship their grain from the mainland — it accounts for nearly 70 percent of local farmers’ cost to produce eggs, he said.
Not everyone is convinced that the big new farm will be a boon to current producers.
James Peterson, who ran Peterson’s Upland Farm in Wahiawa until his retirement and still answers the phone at their office, said many restaurants and bakeries will still opt for frozen egg products, which are cheaper.
“A million birds would probably produce a lot more than what’s being used here locally,” Peterson said. “They’re going to figure out pretty soon they have to compete with the mainland eggs.”
And while the giant egg farm might be helpful for local farmers if it spurred local grain production, it might also have a negative effect if it drives prices down, Peterson said.
“It would certainly affect prices, maybe drive some (local farmers) out of business,” he said.
Still, Sencer said he hopes to support local farmers, especially when it comes to purchasing chicken feed. He plans to remove manure from the farm daily, which could then go to other farmers to produce grains and other crops.
“We hope to create a lot of jobs and hopefully a lot of peripheral industries,” Sencer said.
Peterson said farmers used to buy locally produced feed when most of Hawaii’s eggs were produced in the islands.
But local farmers have stopped growing grain. Also, tuna meal and meat scraps — which can be mixed with grain for added protein — have gotten too expensive, said Peterson, now retired after running Peterson’s Upland Farm.
These days, the 15,000-hen farm spends about $5,200 a month to ship containers of grain from the mainland, he said.
Peterson thinks there could be an opportunity for farmers to start growing grain locally if the demand increases, and they could do so year-round because of the temperate weather.
However, producing grain comes with its own set of challenges, like investing in a feed mill and finding space to store the product, he said.
Disclaimer: The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.