Kohala farmer Carol Fuertes has a dream.
In the shell of an old butcher shop that closed many years ago, she is planning to once again offer local residents the meats that were raised on the old cane lands they call home.
“I want it to be only Kohala,” she told me. “I’m not going to go big — not export.”
Fuertes, who ranches cattle, goats and pigs with her husband David, is not alone. In fact, she’s part of a growing movement to do what the supermarkets haven’t — bring more locally raised meats to Big Island residents.
In the past few months, two new butcher shops have opened in Kailua-Kona and Waimea. And a new mobile slaughter unit has started operating after small ranchers waited years to have their specialty meats processed in a certified facility.
Traditionally, the specialty meat market on the Big Island didn’t amount to much. Dozens of farmers raising or wanting to raise goats, sheep and pigs found it very difficult, if not impossible, to get their meat processed in the island’s two slaughterhouses. Production at the Hilo facility has been geared to volume, and the Pauuilo facility processes only beef.
“It’s been Costco, KTA and Foodland,” said Mills Stovall, a professional chef who opened Waimea Butcher Shop at the end of January.
The lack of local options is beginning to change.
“I think we’re about 10 to 15 years behind the mainland, where every little community has a butcher shop now,” said Stovall. “It’s sort of a cultural renaissance brought on by the farmers markets, people wanting to have a closer relationship to where their food comes from.”
Connor Butler, trained as a French chef, is co-owner of the Kona Butcher Shop, which opened in March. He bought some of the first carcasses to roll out of the new mobile slaughterhouse when it began operating in April in Kealakekua.
Stovall is carving out his niche: animals raised on the Big Island and treated humanely, ideally not transported far to their final destination. Butler and his partner, Frank Kramm, are reaching a bit wider. They’re bringing in lamb from Niihau, venison from Molokai and beef from Pauuilo. But they also get bison and beef from ranches on the mainland and offer exotic items like frog legs, foie gras and truffles.
Butler is big into dry-aging of the meats, “partly because you have no access to it and it’s something we’ve done as humans for thousands of years. Supermarkets have sort of eliminated it. We’re astronauts a little in this, taking local stuff and trying to get it to where the great Texas and Wyoming ranches are at.”
“It’s crazy nobody is fighting to get great local or imported products into Kona,” Butler said. “You need a barber, a butcher and a bank. They’re really fundamental in a community.”
Members of the Hawaii Island Meat Cooperative have been making this argument for some time. It’s been the basis for some $350,000 in grant money used to get the mobile slaughter unit up and running. Housed in a 36-foot trailer, the shiny stainless slaughterhouse has a top production capacity of 10 cattle, 30 sheep or 20 hogs a day.
A pilot project unique in Hawaii, the mobile unit was conceived six years ago and backed by the state Department of Agriculture. With more than 80 percent of the state’s ranch land located on the Big Island, the unit is designed to offer kill space for a diversity of animals bound for specialty products, said Scott Enright, the department’s chairman.
Enright said that a similar slaughter operation is being launched on Maui. “The other islands will get mobile slaughters” once the bugs have been worked out of this one, he said.
“I think it’s part of the foodie movement,” Enright said. “There’s a whole movement toward going back to local butcher shops. Rather than having meat that’s been packaged in Iowa, you get fresh cuts that are cut well.”
The Big Island’s mobile slaughter unit still has logistical hurdles. The facility is capable of processing down to quarters, but lacks the ability to cut and wrap. The co-op has experienced delays in bringing on a USDA-certified inspector.
The unit has a single certified facility in Kealakekua and is working to gain certification for several other sites around the island. It’s a slow but necessary process, because transporting animals long distances to slaughter is part of what has hindered small producers all along.
The Fuertes’ cattle are ready to slaughter. But they will have to be hauled at some expense to the mobile site far down the leeward coast. Additional sites on the north end of the island are needed to service numerous other ranchers in the region.
The Fuertes are trying to bring meat production home for the future. Through their nonprofit Kahua Paa Mua near Hawi and a learning lab at the farm, they’re teaching high school students the ropes of animal husbandry and crop production.
At the 1.5-acre Natural Farming Learning Lab at Hoea, the youths are building hog pens and raising animals. Given the movement of the current tide, they may one day have an economically viable way to slaughter and sell them.
“We want to really perpetuate what has been going on in the past few years and move it forward,” Stovall said. “We’re a ranching town. It’s in our blood here.”