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David Wong is vegan, but he admits to occasionally tasting pork from the roughly 1,000 hogs he raises on his piggery in Waianae.
A bout with cancer transformed the way Wong thinks about the industrial farming that supplies most of the meat found in Hawaii’s grocery stores.
“The bottom line from what I learned is you are what you eat and what it eats,” he said. “The point is commercial pork is loaded with antibiotics, vaccines, hormones, growth promoters. That’s how you can get the pig to grow so fast and so lean.”
Wong doesn’t use artificial growth hormones, vaccines or antibiotics on his pigs and he hopes the all-natural approach will convince buyers to pay extra for the product. The success of his 6-year-old pig farm depends on the discerning taste of the high-end chefs he sells to, who he believes can taste quality of meat the way a sommelier sips wine.
“You’ve got to be able to prove the concept,” said Wong. “Ten years down the road or 15 years down the road are we going to be a success? We don’t know.”
Island pig farmers face the same challenges as many other local agricultural pursuits: their production costs are much higher than those of Big Ag competitors on the mainland.
Waianae pig farmer Elliot Telles sells his 250- to 320-pound pigs for $1.80 per pound, or $3.50 per pound for suckling pigs. He says mainland farmers sell their pork for as little as 15 cents per pound.
To survive, local pork farmers target buyers who are willing to pay extra for a fresher product and for knowing which farm the pig comes from.
Farmers develop relationships with high-end chefs and ensure their pork has a reputation for quality. They can also depend on customers from immigrant or Native Hawaiian communities who prefer to buy whole pigs straight from the farm and slaughter them themselves on-site. Especially during holidays, many pig farmers can’t keep up with the demand.
“In some ways pork is unique because it is a critical part of the culture. You can’t have a baby without a luau,” said Halina Zaleski, a swine specialist and professor at the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “Getting pork chops from Safeway is just not the same, and the other (local) industries don’t have that.”
Pig farms were once scattered throughout Oahu, producing an ingredient central to the cuisine of Native Hawaiian and immigrant communities.
“The pig is the centerpiece of all the celebration and all the rights of passage for most Hawaiian families, Filipino families, Japanese families,” said George Kahumoku, a Grammy Award-winning slack key musician who spent 40 years running a Hawaii Island hog farm.
As land use on the island shifted from agricultural to urban or residential, pig farmers found themselves pushed toward the Leeward Coast. Many farms disappeared along the way.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, taken every five years, shows the number of pig farms dropped 70 percent over the last four decades. In 1978, Hawaii had 399 pig farms compared to just 131 in 2012.
Data for 2017 is not yet available. But people who work with pig farmers say they’ve seen an uptick in the number of farms in the last few years.
“Ten years ago everybody was wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh our farmers are getting old, old, and as farmers retire our production is going to go down.’ That’s all changed,” Zaleski said.
Four and a half years ago a family friend gave David Souza’s father two sows and a boar – the kind of gift you might get if you live or work on the back roads of Waianae, where farms still dot the landscape.
The Souzas come from a long line of Hawaii farmers, but Souza turned his head as his father nursed the litter until it grew to 30 pigs. Souza’s composting business, Island Topsoil, kept him so busy he had no time to help with the new enterprise. When his father became sick and unable to tend to the animals, Souza sold them.
“When I saw the money, I was like, ‘Oh gosh, maybe Dad is onto something,’” Souza said.
Today, he oversees a farm of about 700 pigs. Souza and the four employees he hired to run the piggery attend mainland conferences to learn about the latest in pig farming technology and market trends.
Especially around Mother’s Day and New Year’s, he can’t keep up with the demand from local families who want suckling pigs to put on a spit or older sows to put in an imu, an underground oven that’s the centerpiece of Hawaiian luaus.
If a Tongan or Samoan chief visits the island, Souza said, families assigned to cook for the occasion buy as many as 30 pigs at a time.
Selecting a pig and slaughtering it on the farm is part of a tradition for many immigrant communities, an experience that Costco can’t offer.
“They like the experience, they grew up with that,” said Lorra Naholowaa, who works on Souza’s farm. “Now they’re here in Hawaii and they don’t have the yards to raise the pigs, it’s different. When they come they bring their whole family, it’s a whole experience.
Souza wants to sell his meat in supermarkets but so far only two of his pigs are processed at the local slaughterhouse per week and sent to Tamura’s Market, a local grocery store. Like other Oahu pig farmers, Souza finds himself constrained by a global price war.
Even on the U.S. mainland, small pig farmers can’t compete with industrial farms; the number of pig farms in the U.S. dropped 70 percent from 1991 to 2009 as the industry shifted to a few large scale operations, mainly in the Midwest, according to the USDA. In the same period, USDA data shows pork production in the U.S. increased 44 percent.
Souza took a trip to Chinatown a few weeks ago to try to sell his pork but a vendor immediately turned him away and told him he was wasting his time.
“You cannot walk into Chinatown and ask for fresh, local pork,” Souza said. “It’s price driven. A lot of people say buy local, fresh, but to be honest that word has little meaning these days because everything is price driven.”
At 8 a.m. on a recent Friday wholesale buyers flooded the red-carpeted floor of the Blaisdell Convention Center for the Made In Hawaii Festival, a trade show for locally made products. Stacy Sugai’s booth was tucked in the back, but the smell of bacon drew customers. Suga flipped sizzling slices of Portuguese sausages she was cooking on a portable stove.
The sausages cost twice as much as imported brands that line grocery store shelves because the pork in Sugai’s product comes from pigs raised on her Waianae piggery, 2 Lady Farmers. Instead of cutting costs, Sugai hopes the taste difference and local branding will convince customers to pay more.
“We’re not even trying to go head to head with the mainland guys because we can’t,” she said. “What we’re trying to market toward is the whole local grower movement … It’s more of the notion of wanting to know where your food comes from.”
Sugai’s business partner, Patsy Oshiro, spent the last two decades watching as the pig farm run by her ex-husband’s family gradually went out of business. The customers they depended on, mostly immigrants from the Philippines who worked on sugarcane plantations who bought whole pigs straight from the farm, faded along with the industry that brought them to Hawaii.
Rather than abandon an ostensibly dying industry, Oshiro and Sugai joined forces with the goal of bringing local pork back to grocery stores in Hawaii.
Most old-timers in the industry say people aren’t willing to pay for local pork, Sugai said. She and Oshiro want to prove them wrong.
For now, 2 Lady Farmers survives by selling to high-end chefs. Their meat can also be found at a few Foodland grocery stores.
The success of a small farmer “all comes from carving a niche and branding yourself as a higher value product for your consumers,” said Erin Borror, an economist with the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
Meat producers in Japan have had notable success despite cheaper options imported from the U.S. flooding grocery stores, Borror said, because people pay top dollar for Kobe beef or Kurobuta pork.
Sugai and Oshiro are also working on diversifying the products they sell. Rather than just selling raw meat, 2 Lady Farmers teamed up with Aloha Edibles, a local snack company, to make jerky.
At least one Oahu hog farmer doesn’t worry about market trends or the price of pork on the stock market. A faded sign along a Waianae Valley back road that reads “Jay’s Hog Farm” is the only advertising Elliot Telles does to promote his pig farm. And business is good.
Filipino families drive from Ewa, Waipahu and Kalihi to buy a 250- to 320-pound pig at Jay’s. Customers slaughter the pig on the farm and “use every little bit of the animal,” Telles said, not just for special occasions but for everyday consumption.
His customer base is similar to those who bought pork at Oshiro’s now-closed farm. That base hasn’t disappeared entirely.
Telles’ customers want fresh meat and use parts of the animal – the blood, for example – that they can’t find at grocery stores.
Word of mouth brings so much business to Telles’ farm he sometimes runs out of pigs and must turn customers away.
“Their tradition is what keeps us fueled,” Telles said. “I don’t see any chance of that slowing down.”
His loyal customer base shields Telles from market forces. He doesn’t have to worry about importing much feed – his customers prefer the fatty meat of pigs raised on food scraps as opposed to the leaner meat of grain-fed pigs.
Business actually got better during the Great Recession, Telles said, because people ate out less and depended more on home-cooked meals.
Telles only brings pigs to the grocery stores or markets in Chinatown on the rare occasions when he has a surplus, and he usually loses money on the sale. That experience has taught him not to tailor his business to new buyers.
“I’d rather truly support these people who have been with us for all these years instead of trying to satisfy the meat-packer-type market,” he said.
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