Daniel Simonich makes his living as a corporate architect, but at the beginning of the pandemic he was inspired to work on a different scale: building a chicken coop out of recycled pallets and scrap wood.

Hawaii Grown“Working from home remotely, I had time in the morning to actually make breakfast and I wanted to eat more eggs sustainably,” he said.

More than 80% of Hawaii’s food is imported, and seeing empty shelves during the early days of the pandemic caused many in Hawaii to pay closer attention to the state’s food security. Across the islands, people turned to gardening, learned how to eat invasive species or practiced new recipes with the island’s abundant staple crops.

Simonich invested in chickens.

“I think we were all in this mode of being more self-sufficient,” he said. “I know a lot of people who did the same.”

Online groups sharing advice and swapping selfies with their fluffy chickens added hundreds of members. One chicken breeder on the Big Island has a weeks-long waitlist. But experts say there needs to be more education and possibly regulatory changes for hyper-local egg and poultry production to make a dent in the substantial import market.

Clockwise from left: Chloe Hartwell’s chicken coop, Daniel Simonich’s chicken walking up his home-made ramp, Synnora Bettencourt posing with chickens, eggs from Chloe Hartwell’s hens and a new brood of chicks from Paradise PoultryPhotos courtesy of Chloe Hartwell, Daniel Simonich, Donnie Alverson of Paradise Poultry and Synnora Bettencourt.

 

Although Chloe Hartwell bought her first two baby chicks on a whim, six years later she has no regrets.

“I would definitely recommend doing a bit more planning than I did,” she said. “But it’s really worked out. My neighbors are pretty delighted and amused by it … also I give them eggs which helps.”

Her backyard in Wailupe prominently features a brightly colored hen house, and the experience of caring for her two chickens inspired her to be more mindful of what she eats and invest in supporting local farmers. The past two years have deepened her appreciation for her chickens. She didn’t have to worry about egg shortages in grocery stores and she could safely connect with her neighbors by dropping off eggs during difficult times.

“It’s a really wonderful thing to get to participate in, but it’s definitely something that should be done with some planning and intention,” she said.

Oahu’s city codes allow for two hens per household, but roosters are banned in residential zones. Each island has its own zoning rules, and homeowners associations can also impose restrictions.

With that to consider, Melelani Oshiro, a livestock expert at the University of Hawaii, always recommends that people look up rules for their specific addresses.

“Here on Hawaii island, for example, a lot of people live on residential agriculture land which allows for larger flocks,” she said.

Whether someone is adopting a few hens for eggs, an entire flock for meat or running a commercial poultry operation, Oshiro says sanitation practices are important, and recommends that people do their research on how to safely handle birds, eggs and chicken manure.

“If you have kids around, it’s a good thing to show them the whole process, the responsibility of owning the animal and how you respect them for providing food for your family,” she said.

Beyond sustainability, food security and family bonding, Oshiro said that raising chickens is part of Hawaii’s DNA. Polynesian voyagers brought chickens to Hawaii more than 700 years ago and it’s been a staple food for every wave of immigrants since.

“Back in the plantation days, that’s what it was: You had a few hens and you managed your own kills,” she said. “I grew up here on the Big Island and our grandmas, our papas and whatnot — they all did their own slaughtering.”

Clockwise from left: A basketful of chickens at Paradise Poultry, Synnora Bettencourt takes a selfie with a rooster, Donnie Alverson poses with a rooster, one of Chloe Hartwell’s baby chicks poses next to a pineapple. Photos courtesy of Donnie Alverson of Paradise Poultry, Synnora Bettencourt and Chloe Hartwell.

Donnie Alverson is dedicated to supporting Hawaii’s traditions. His full-time job is as a wildlife researcher helping to grow Hawaii’s endemic bird populations. Three years ago he started raising rare and endangered breeds of chickens and selling the chicks. When the pandemic started to hit Hawaii in early 2020, his business, Paradise Poultry, went wild.

“I have people emailing me every day about chickens,” he said. “Initially this was a side hustle and it’s getting to the point where it’s taking up all of my free time.”

He sells pure-bred — or heritage — chickens to farmers and families across the island of Hawaii. Alverson said he’s loved sharing his passion and helping people learn the satisfaction of raising their own food.

“Chickens are often called the gateway drug into farming,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re automatically the easiest animal to keep.”

Just like any other animal, chickens require vaccinations, veterinary services, shelter and care, which Alverson said surprises some people who don’t do their research and think they can get free eggs by letting chickens run loose in a backyard.

But he says one of the biggest misconceptions is that a hen lays an egg every day.

“The most productive breed you’re going to find only lays about 250 every year,” he said. “If you have a small family I usually recommend getting about half a dozen hens.”

That’s one reason why Synnora Bettencourt is advocating for the City and County of Honolulu to allow households to keep more than two chickens in residential areas.

“I feel like it’s just lip service because two chickens really doesn’t do much for those of us that actually want to provide food for our family,” she said.

Bettencourt agrees that roosters are annoying and don’t belong in residential areas, but she said when she brought the issue to her neighborhood board people associated chickens with noise and odor.

“They absolutely can be, but with the right education it’s easy to keep it clean and quiet,” she said. “The current rules allow for 10 dogs per household and I think that 10 hens would be a lot less disruptive … and it would bring our neighborhoods together, to share the extra food.”

Clockwise from left: Synnora Bettencourt’s daughter plays with chickens in their backyard, a selection of eggs sold by Paradise Poultry, a pro-chicken yard sign, Synnora Bettencourt cuddles with two chickens and Daniel Simonich’s chicken peers out of his coop. Photos courtesy of Synnora Bettencourt, Donnie Alverson of Paradise Poultry and Daniel Simonich.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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