Hidden behind the lengthy, grassy berm lining Highway 803, less than five miles east of Wahiawa, Waialua Egg Farm is finally producing eggs.
The facility of about 200,000 chickens has been 10 years in the making and sold its first 900 dozen eggs last week. Covered in solar panels, its water comes directly from its own well and the chicken manure is turned into biochar, to be returned as nutrients for farmers across the state. The facility is considered state of the art.
The owner hopes the farm will replace Hawaii’s need for mainland eggs — including its own.
So few producers exist in Hawaii that the National Agricultural Statistics Service stopped publishing data in 2011, when 65.5 million eggs were produced, because it would reveal sensitive commercial information for the few larger operators that still exist.
Because there are so few who can deliver eggs at the scale needed to feed all of Hawaii, much of what is available comes from the mainland, as is the case with most food. And because of the scale of the mainland producers’ operations, they can produce and supply eggs from under $5 per dozen while Hawaiian eggs typically fetch about $1.50 more.
With an eventual capacity for 1 million cage-free chickens and in addition to Hawaii’s current producers, Villa Rose calculates that the state’s population, as well as tourists, will be able to exclusively eat Hawaii-grown eggs once they are able to produce enough to compete on pricing.
“We want to feed Hawaii for hundreds of years,” farm manager Avery Barry said. “This looks like way too much space right now, but we will fill it up.”
Facing The Four Challenges
According to Michael Duponte, who recently retired from the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, there have been four main hurdles for livestock and poultry in Hawaii: feed, waste management, land tenure and ever-evolving regulations.
Hidden Villa Ranch Executive Vice President Mike Sencer attests to the height of those hurdles: It has been more than eight years since the company purchased the land from Dole and it only recently sold its first eggs.
Villa Rose has outright ownership of the 317 acre property, purchased in 2013 for $6.4 million.
The company has facilities and offices in 15 states so is accustomed to having to overcome problems, but Hawaii’s regulations made it “probably the hardest in the country,” Sencer said.
It has accounted for new regulations by making all of its chickens cage-free, as states continue to ban the practice, and the chicken manure is all filtered from the hen houses to an incinerator that turns the waste into biochar, an increasingly popular and climate friendly fertilizer.
“You can see though, we’re trying to be very proactive,” Sencer said.
However, feed remains a work in progress. For now, Villa Rose is importing feed from the mainland — a blow to its goal of self-sustainability — but is researching local alternatives.
Community-based food and agriculture organization Malama Kauai recently announced a program to encourage local small-holder and Indigenous farmers to produce eggs through free supplies and education, but it also faces the issue of feed. Through collective buying power, however, they hope to be able to ensure a steady supply.
So no matter the flock’s size, sustainable feed stocks are integral to the sustainability of any chicken operation.
Need For Feed
When it comes to chicken feed, the typical commercial recipe is mostly made up of corn, a bit of soybean and some added vitamins and minerals.
This is the recipe that Villa Rose follows, but the outfit has been looking to grow its own feed in the islands.
Given Hawaii’s climate and potential for thrice-yearly harvests of corn, as well as better logistical proximity, Sencer thinks there are some “huge advantages” to producing feed locally, but it requires an estimated 5,000 acres of land,
“And we do have a number of interested parties who are looking into doing that for us,” he said.
Sencer added that the company also is wrestling with the question of whether to use genetically modified organisms, or food grown from seeds that are genetically engineered in a laboratory.
“We tried some non-GMO because I would love to do some non-GMO,” Sencer said.
But Sencer says if it comes down to compromising the price point, which Villa Rose needs to compete against mainland eggs, there may need to be some compromise and GMOs may need to be used.
“Which I know is a big thing in Hawaii,” he said, in reference to GMOs.
While Villa Rose’s eggs are not aiming to have organic status, the issue of GMOs are entirely different and have a long and controversial history in Hawaii. In the past 10 years, local communities have voiced strong opposition to the cultivation of pesticide resistant crops, expressing public health and environmental concerns.
In 2013 Kauai County Council tried to create pesticide-free buffer zones around schools, places of work and residences, while Maui and Hawaii island implemented outright bans on GMOs, but all were annulled by the Ninth Circuit court in 2016.
Though Hawaii’s virulent history with modified crops is not new to Sencer, he said it may be the only way forward if people want their egg producers eating a Hawaii-grown diet.
“I think there’s some naivete if you say, ‘It’s local or bust.’” — Economics Professor Michael Roberts
Despite Lee’s belief that the Villa Rose project marks a milestone in Hawaii’s drive to become more self-reliant, he is skeptical that it will be able to produce enough corn and soy to feed itself, even if it is GMO.
And while there have been shortages and shipping delay issues in feed, for outfits with Villa Rose’s capacity, it would not be an issue. According to Lee, big outfits like that can stockpile for contingencies.
The dilemma about whether it makes sense to grow feed locally boils down to the question of whether it helps food security and self-sufficiency or whether it makes no financial sense.
Professor Michael Roberts of the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii says there’s no need to choose sides.
“I think there’s some naivete if you say, ‘It’s local or bust,’” Roberts said.
And for Villa Rose, in terms of the overall operation, it could potentially increase costs in general, something that is not in its interest despite its good intentions.
“Self sufficiency… doesn’t mean it’s the right environmental thing,” Roberts said. “We want to think about the best places to do things.”
For corn and soy, that means the Midwest. For Hawaii to start growing GMO crops — with the associated herbicides — on such a scale could be detrimental to the islands’ limited land, sandy soils and proximity to the sea, said Roberts, who also researches food systems, energy, climate and economics.
“Corn’s a dirty business. Maybe there’s some wisdom in keeping it in the Midwest,” he added. “There’s no way that you’re going to be able to produce a lot of corn here without (GMOs).”
Hidden Villa Ranch is not scrambling to fill out its facility, however, and will continue to bring feed in from the mainland until a viable option presents itself, Sencer said.
Sencer maintains Villa Rose is not trying to put small existing producers out of business, or even compete with them, as they will be providing a product at a lower price point and without organic status.
The slow gestation period of filling the facility with birds was also to avoid flooding the market.