HILO >> “People are hungry for local food,” Emily Taaroa said on a bright morning as she walked between homemade chicken pens on 5.5 acres of Keaau land.
Grass between the pens was mowed close to the ground, the better to discourage mongoose from venturing close to the hundreds of Cornish Rock chickens cheeping to each other as they pecked the ground and drank sips of water.
It’s been 2 1/2 years since Taaroa and husband, Yoric, founded Punachicks Farm, seeking to fill an unmistakable void in the local food scene: poultry.
And there’s little doubt they’ve exceeded their own expectations, having tripled production from 200 birds per month in their first year to about 600 per month now. They supply chickens to health food stores, hotels and restaurants around the Big Island, and ship to Oahu and Maui, in addition to providing birds to their regular customers who come to Punachicks every other week to pick up orders.
“We see it as a service to the community,” Taaroa said. “It’s farming — you’re not going to get rich on it, but it’s worthwhile.”
Successful farm ventures don’t arrive ready-made; they come piece by piece (“My dad built us our first plucker for my Christmas present, when we first started,” Taaroa said) and depend on a steady input of time and labor.
It helps if there’s ready-made demand, though.
There are no large processing facilities for island-grown chicken in Hawaii. Though a mobile slaughterhouse for livestock like cattle and sheep is set to begin operations on the Big Island this year, it will not handle poultry (there are long-term plans for a poultry unit, however).
For years, the island-grown chicken market was, as with many agriculture markets, threatened by cheaper mainland imports. In 2004, Oahu-based Pacific Poultry Co. Ltd. made the decision to process only imports, driving several local producers out of business.
Local meat is slowly regaining ground, driven by interest in sustainability, food security and humane livestock treatment. It’s a more expensive product — Punachicks birds are currently sold for $5.50 per pound — but people are willing to pay for it.
“Everybody has the picture in their heads of the confined poultry houses, and they don’t want to buy from that anymore,” Taaroa said. That was the case for her family, which decided to make the jump to pasture-raising broiler chickens after spending time working with layer hens and gardening.
Yoric Taaroa, a carpenter, builds the pens for the birds, testing out new structures on occasion. Each is moved daily to a new site, bringing a fresh supply of insects and grass directly to the Cornish Rocks (“They’re lazy,” Emily Taaroa said). The birds also get organic feed shipped from the mainland.
Punachicks Farm was the first in the state to receive a U.S. Department of Agriculture exemption to process and sell birds on its property. A USDA inspector from Oahu visits Punachicks Farm once a year to check over the facility, but isn’t required to be on-site for every processing day.
Because Punachicks also has a state Department of Health food establishment permit, the Taaroas also can sell directly from the farm.
“There’s really no other avenue to get the chickens out there on the market other than doing it yourself through the exemption,” Taaroa said. “Our USDA inspector . was really excited for us. He’s very pro-farmer; he hoped we would pave the way when it went through.”
But it is challenging to start a pasture-raised poultry business, requiring more than just land — the Taaroas currently lease from W.H. Shipman, where Emily has her day job — and equipment. A major barrier to entering is the processing itself.
“The processing, of course, is the most unpleasant part of the whole thing, but it has to be done,” Taaroa said. She said she gets frequent requests from home farmers asking if they can bring their hens to Punachicks for slaughter. The USDA exemption prevents that, although the Taaroas can rent out equipment to others.
Chicks arrive every two weeks from Asagi Hatchery on Oahu. They are kept in brooder homes at the Taaroa’s house in Fern Acres, a 30-minute drive from the actual Punachicks farm site.
“We wake up at home, feed the chicks in the brooder homes, check on the chickens (at the farm), and then come back,” Taaroa said. It means long days for the family (the Taaroas’ two daughters aren’t interested in being hands-on yet, but “maybe someday”).
But soon, Punachicks will move to a new site, having recently received a state Department of Agriculture loan to purchase 25 acres of land in Kurtistown.
The Keaau property is maxed out for the number of birds it can hold, meaning the Taaroas have to turn down orders. And building a home isn’t possible on the leased land.
“We really want to be able to live on our farm,” Taaroa said.
“We can do more, I think, on a long-term piece of land . we’ve pretty much outgrown this area, and we’re landlocked by the papayas.”
At the far edge of the property, where grass gave way to a neighboring papaya farm, a dozen sheep rested in the sunshine. They are there to help mow the grass and will eventually be part of a new Punachicks venture.
“We worked our way up to sheep,” Taaroa said. “We haven’t made it to cattle yet.”