Elise Nielsen has been building her poultry business over the course of the pandemic. But she has hit a major roadblock: She can’t lease Department of Agriculture land.

Nielsen and her husband launched their business in early 2021, having already raised quails at their Maui home. Nielsen says she did her homework, and called DOA to confirm she could eventually lease land. So she started scaling up her business, Kihei Poultry.

But it turns out that the DOA prohibits farming poultry or swine on the land it leases. Now, she faces months of work to see if she might get an exemption from the Board of Agriculture to let her raise poultry on her property.

Nielsen says her poultry work only started as a means to help her family become more self-sufficient, but as she continued raising quails at her home in Kihei, she realized its potential for the local market.

Raising chickens in Hawaii, especially for meat, has been a declining industry that has struggled to compete with mainland poultry. Courtesy: Kihei Poultry/2022

With no DOA land available at the time, she found a two-acre lease on a farm in Haiku. She bided her time until something popped up, but when it did in mid-November, she was told she could not raise poultry.

Kihei Poultry is currently producing between 20 and 30 birds to sell each week, and in the next couple of months Nielsen anticipates they will be producing closer to 100. But for Kihei Poultry to get out of its incubation period, they need more land.

“I wanted to provide food that was the cheapest possible,” Nielsen said. “That was based on hoping to eventually have state land, because that is by far the cheapest way.”

Kihei Poultry is able to sell whole chickens and ducks at $8 per pound, while quails average $4.50 each; the prices would eventually get cheaper, so long as the operation could scale up. Nielsen projects her flock of birds could increase to about 1,200, so long as she has some land.

“The more we are able to make things efficient the less we have to charge,” Nielsen said.

Too Much Of A Nuisance?

Chickens can be loud, smelly and their waste is often an issue, especially when it comes to residential areas. Honolulu restricts residences to two birds each. And on the Big Island, rooster crows became such a nuisance that Hawaii County introduced an ordinance to restrict roosters from lingering within 75 feet of properties. It failed to pass, however.

Feral chickens are common in Hawaii but rare on state ag land. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

But similar reasons provide the basis for why DOA does not expressly allow swine and poultry, according to Morris Atta, deputy to DOA Chair Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser.

The prohibition on poultry and swine is not law, rather it’s based on language in lease agreements.

It stems from previous concerns regarding noise and odor being a nuisance to surrounding areas, “as well as the perceived increased risk of disease transmission,” Atta said.

“Our leases were restricted to historically established agricultural practices, such as diversified agriculture, aquaculture, pasture and nursery, to balance support for the agricultural industry with known community concerns,” Atta said.

Producers can approach the ag board for a special exemption, however.

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“They are going to want to weigh the community consequences to the needs of the farming industry before deciding,” Atta said.

Hawaii consumed 108 pounds of chicken per capita in 2017. And according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, in that same year there were 13,000 “meat-type” chickens in the state, while 8,356 were sold.

Hawaii used to have a more active poultry industry. In 1959, Hawaii produced 9.6 million pounds of chicken, accounting for 35% of the local market at the time. It is also one of the original animals to arrive in Hawaii, alongside pigs.

Atta said poultry producers can seek to use land from other departments, such as the Department of Land and Natural Resources. DLNR does not currently have any agricultural lands with poultry production, a spokesperson said.

Struggling To Feed Hawaii

Lynold “Kame” Acasio, who runs KnC Farms in Hilo, has been trying to fill a supply gap for Hawaii’s poultry farmers by producing chicks to raise for meat or egg-laying and private use, as well as providing his own eggs to the local community. Like Nielsen, he has been stymied by the issue of DOA leases.

Acasio says local demand is there for eggs, from restaurants and everyday consumers, and he also breeds a number of purebred roosters. Chickens over the pandemic became especially popular, even in residential areas.

“I’ve had people contact me for 100 chicks and I’ve had people contact me for two chicks,” Acasio said.

At KnC Farms in Hilo, Lyndon “Kame” Acasio breeds Freedom Ranger chickens with this rooster. Courtesy: Lynold Acasio/2022

Despite noise concerns, Acasio describes his methods of raising chickens as similar to Korean Natural Farming with pigs — which typically entails using microorganisms to reduce odors and increase soil health.

“The smell is minimal, if any,” said Acasio.

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But Acasio remains hampered in expanding production due to his inability to lease DOA land. If he had the space, he believes he could eventually provide enough young stock to feed into a larger poultry industry that feeds Hawaii more local chicken.

When Will Poultry Meet A Crossroads?

Rep. Tina Wildberger, of Maui’s 11th district, has taken on Nielsen’s case, with a particular focus on how such restrictions go against the state’s apparent focus on increasing self-sufficiency.

The state has been attempting to address widespread concerns about Hawaii’s import-reliant food system over the past several years. In 2016 Gov. David Ige said he wanted to double local food production in Hawaii, and the Legislature has continued to introduce various bills to increase local consumption of local foods.

Since it was important to ensure farmers had access to land to address those issues, it only made sense to ensure those wanting to feed the community would have access too, said Wildberger.

Lease management by DOA has become an issue, according to fellow Maui Rep. Troy Hashimoto.

He said DOA should be a leader in developing agriculture, as it’s mandated to do, but believes that its leasing processes are lacking.

“The Department of Agriculture probably needs to take a look at how they are looking at leases,” said Hashimoto. “I think that hopefully is something that within the next couple of years they get a handle on.”

Meanwhile, Nielsen and other aspiring poultry and pig farmers are faced with either the cost of buying land outright or facing the uncertainty of submitting applications and lodging appeals with the state ag board.

Notwithstanding the common complaints and appeal process, Nielsen says she is prepared to do what it takes to expand her operation and continue feeding the local community.

Nielsen’s birds are not USDA-certified organic but are as free range and organic as she’s currently able to produce. Their 10×20-foot coop is circulated around her two-acre plot in a rotational grazing pattern, to ensure the land is not overburdened and animal welfare is optimized.

Lynold “Kame” Acasio breeds roosters on the island of Hawaii, specifically for meat and to provide to the wider poultry industry. Courtesy: Lynold Acasio/2022

At the end of the day, she says she and her husband just want to be able to make a living through working in poultry, which they estimate will take 10 acres.

It will just take changing the phrasing of the lease agreements, something she says would not necessarily require radical action from the DOA.

“It’s not just my family business,” Nielsen said. “There’s other families that have been affected as well.”

DOA acknowledges that things are changing, as self-sufficiency and food security continue to be hot topics in the public domain, Deputy Chair Atta says.

“We understand that agriculture in Hawaii is an evolving industry,” Atta said. “And we are currently looking into the agricultural activity of the care and production of poultry on Hawaii Department of Agriculture lease lands.”

“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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