Monday | December 11, 2017
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Co-op launches effort to make Big Island pork industry viable

Atto Assi’s piggery in Mountain View is home to more than two dozen sows and one boar.

This is a standard size for a small commercial operation in Hawaii. And if all goes well in the coming months, the model Assi uses for his farm — Korean natural farming — is about to become the standard for the Big Island’s next big meat market: local pork.

Assi is a charter member of the Hawaii Island Swine Producers Cooperative, which formed last year as a steering committee and now is beginning to step up its efforts.

“We’re really trying to develop the market,” said Teresa Young, cooperative business development specialist for the Kohala Center. “It’s one of the staples here, and yet most of it is bought from off-island.”

Young started working with swine producers last year as they began to sort out goals and a co-op vision. Twenty-eight people turned out last month for a workshop.

“The group I’ve been talking to and working with is just … excited,” Young said. “I get really excited when I hear farmers say this is going to be big.”

“When you start to see suckling pigs sold at Costco, you know there’s a market,” said Michael DuPonte, Hawaii County extension agent for the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. There’s no reason suckling pigs, staples of luau, should come from off-island, he said.

“It was a little startling,” said co-op president Debra Hursey. “I was just shocked.”

The market is there for pigs of all sizes, DuPonte said, from wean-off piglets to 200-pound sows.

There are between 6,000 and 6,500 sows throughout the state, with about 900 of those on the Big Island. But just 25 years ago, there were more than 28,000 sows statewide.

“We’re not producing enough (hogs) here to even feed around 10 percent of the market,” DuPonte said.

Hog farming fell out of favor as fewer people were willing to go through the red tape of regulations surrounding the industry. Neighbors didn’t want to live near smelly farms.

And feed pellets sell for more than double the cost of what they would on the mainland, pricing out many farmers who could not afford to cost of keeping their hogs fat and happy.

The co-op intends to address both problems. For starters, it is comprised exclusively of Korean natural farming piggeries like Assi’s.

Assi’s piggery is quiet except for bursts of snorting and snuffling. There are no flies buzzing the stalls. The only smell is the faint scent of rain in the air. Korean natural farming, developed by Master Han-Kyu Cho in South Korea, relies on a combination of deep litter (compost) and indigenous microorganisms to eliminate odor.

The system has been in limited use on Hawaii Island since 2009.

“There was a lot of interest once we got the word out,” Hursey said. “Once they (prospective farmers) understand that the inoculated deep litter system eliminates the smell, eliminates the flies.”

It also eliminates the need for antibiotics, farrowing crates and gestation stalls, she said.

Hursey and husband John, who grew up in Pahala, moved to Hawaii Island two and a half years ago planning to start a farm of some sort on their Fern Forest land.

Their desire to start a farm came from a desire to have “sustainable, fresh, natural good food for the people here,” Hursey said.

During the past several months, John designed and built a three-stall piggery (the pigs will arrive later this year), filling it with layers of compost from the county landfill and adding in the microorganisms that will keep the piggery smell-free. He’s now working on an adjacent chicken coop that also will use the Korean natural farming system. A plot of land has been cleared for a larger piggery to be built.

“We feel that we’ve got something right now that is increasing attainable,” DuPonte said of the small-scale piggery system.

Assi started with just four pigs at his farm.

“I had never raised pigs before,” he said. Five years later, he’s working on a new piggery that will house 60 breeding sows.

The market for the sows — or rather, their weaned-off piglets — was there, but Assi wasn’t sure he could afford to feed all of the pigs.

“I could not sleep thinking about it,” he said. At the same time, the feed problem didn’t make sense given the amount of agricultural waste — papaya, macadamia nuts — that was produced on the island.

Forming the co-op allowed farmers to pool their resources to develop a local feed for their pigs from that waste. Assi is building a pelletizing machine on his farm he expects will be ready by July. The feed will then go to co-op members.

“They want to get their input feed consistent so they’re creating a consistent product,” Young said. “With meat, that’s really important.”

Hursey would like to see Hawaii pork as well-regarded as Kobe beef one day.

“You want people to see the name and think, ‘That is some quality, awesome, delicious pork,’” she said.

Mike Amado is the president of the Hawaii Island Meat Cooperative, which recently began operating a mobile slaughterhouse unit. Hogs are set to become one of the biggest demand areas for the unit, he said.

“People were waiting on the sidelines for us to get up and going,” Amado said. “There’ll probably be about six to eight months of ramp-up on that.”

“It’s a win-win-win: You know where your animal has been, and how it was raised, and basically where your food is coming from,” Hursey said.

The ultimate goal for the co-op, DuPonte said, is to take care of the Big Island demand. But a successful co-op model could be expanded to other islands.

“If I was going to go into the livestock industry, this is the one I would go into,” DuPonte said.

For more information about the swine co-op, contact Hursey at 562-577-9675 or debrahursey@yahoo.com.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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