These Local Farmers are Taking Eggs to the Next Level
Local family egg farms are stepping up and standing out.
Eggs! Foodies are obsessing over the rich, runny yolks finding their way onto burgers, pizzas, even oatmeal. Meals starring eggs are all over Instagram—#eggs has 9.6 million posts and #yolkporn (yes, it’s a thing) has more than 260,000 posts—and egg-centric dishes such as the Middle Eastern shakshuka, Mexican chilaquiles and even cloud eggs are all the rage. Blame the brunch trend, but eggs are everywhere right now, and that’s not a bad thing. At least not for local egg farmers.
Local eggs attract a cult following beyond their food-porn qualities: Yolks are richer and brighter, whites are thicker. More chefs are seeking out these local eggs, which has buoyed an industry that had been declining for decades.
James Beard Award-winning chef Alan Wong recalls buying eggs from Petersons’ Upland Farm in Wahiawā, where he grew up, since the 1960s. “I remember going to the farm with my mom on the weekends to buy eggs,” says Wong, who has been buying cases of Petersons’ eggs each week for his restaurant since it opened 24 years ago. “I like these eggs because they’re fresh and they taste great. And buying from Petersons’ enables me to support the community I grew up in and the Peterson family.”
Over the past 30 years, Hawai‘i’s egg industry has struggled, especially after the closure of Pacific Poultry, the state’s main processor of locally raised chickens, in 2004. Back in the ’80s, the state had more than 20 commercial egg farms, supplying 85 percent of the eggs on the market. Today, there are only four on O‘ahu (with another ramping up this year), with the state heavily relying on Mainland imports. In 2010, the latest numbers we could find, the state reported that yearly egg production dropped to 69.5 million from 97 million in 2007 and 129 million in 2001.
(While that may seem like a lot of eggs, Hawai‘i’s production is so small, the U.S. Department of Agriculture combines its numbers with 14 other states. In 2018, these 15 states produced 5.4 billion eggs. Iowa alone produced nearly 16 billion.)
The challenges 10 years ago are the same now: labor, high cost of imported feed, food safety and security standards, scarce land availability, lack of a poultry slaughter facility and cheaper Mainland eggs. In addition, animal welfare activists and specialty markets including Whole Foods Market are pressuring egg farms to swap their caged operations for more costly cage-free ones.
“At one time we were sustainable. There were no eggs being imported,” says Jeri Kahana, quality assurance division administrator for the state Department of Agriculture, who regulates feed and eggs. “But one by one, these farms have closed down for different reasons … But it’s on the rise a little bit. I think people are more receptive to buying local and eggs can go to the market a lot quicker and stay fresher longer. And, personally, I think local eggs taste better.”
These small farms are battling to stay relevant and in business as a huge Mainland-run solar-powered egg farm breaks ground in Wahiawā with plans to eventually flood the local market with 1 million eggs a day. While Villa Rose—a partnership between California’s Hidden Villa Ranch and Indiana’s Rose Acre Farms—may help the Islands move toward self-sustainability in egg production, it could push out the small, family-run farms entirely.
– Jeri Kahana
“It’ll be good for the state overall, but every single farm is feeling nervous,” says Christopher Peterson, who runs Petersons’ Upland Farm with his aunt, Sharon Peterson Cheape. “We’re definitely worried.”
In the meantime, these farms are carrying on, finding ways to stand out and be different, including using special feed that results in richer yolks, changing to cage-free operations or using microorganisms to keep coops clean and reduce salmonella bacteria.
“We have all been talking to each other, helping each other out,” says Mieko Takada of OK Poultry in Waimānalo. “We all want to coexist.”
Petersons’ Upland Farm
Dressed in well-worn jeans and New Balance shoes, Sharon Peterson Cheape smiles and waves from the front of the quaint retail shop at her family’s egg farm. The weathered wooden structure with a warped totan (corrugated metal) roof can’t help but be delightfully friendly and charming. Just like Cheape.
“We’re the hobo farm,” jokes the fourth-generation egg farmer, explaining that the place needs an upgrade. “Everyone says it has character, but I’m a little tired of character. I want something brand new.”
There’s hardly anything brand new at Petersons’ Upland Farm, which spreads across nearly 18 acres in the sleepy town of Wahiawā. The farm was started in 1910 by Elias Peterson—Cheape’s great-grandfather—with a herd of Jersey cattle and a few chickens. Peterson’s son, James, would peddle milk, cream and eggs throughout the neighborhood by horse-drawn buggy. Soon after, the family transitioned to eggs only; in its heyday in the 1980s, it had a flock of more than 150,000 chickens in Wahiawā and at another 33-acre site in Kīpapa Gulch.
Today, the farm, now run by Cheape and her 30-year-old nephew, Christopher Peterson, isn’t as prolific, with about 6,000 working hens producing up to 10,000 eggs a day. About three-fourths of the eggs, both white and brown, are sold from the farm to walk-in customers, mostly from Wahiawā; the rest go to restaurants, including Alan Wong’s Honolulu, Chef Mavro and Stage Restaurant. You can’t buy these eggs in any supermarket or convenience store.
Over the years the farm has changed, with cheaper Mainland eggs creating competition and the island’s only poultry processor closing. Feed—namely the cost of importing it—costs more than ever, and keeping reliable labor is tough.
And Cheape’s to-do list is only growing: Huge African tulip and Australian cedar trees have grown wild on the farm and need to be removed, plastic-dipped chicken wire fencing needs to be installed under the elevated hen houses, old hen houses need to be torn down. It didn’t help that, back in 2015, thieves broke the front gate and stole a green Ford F-350 and black trailer with custom-made rolling pens for moving chickens. It amounted to about a $30,000 loss for the farm.
Thankfully, a friend of a longtime customer rebuilt the pens—it took several months—but the truck wasn’t replaced and the gate never fixed.
“We have to prioritize. We have trees to cut down and pipes to fix,” Cheape says, looking around the farm. She waves at a customer—one of about 200 who come here every day—and smiles. “You really have to have a passion for this. And I do.”
141 Dole St., Wahiawā , 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (808) 621-6619, petersonsuplandfarm.com
There have been some major changes to the business families knew as KK Poultry in Waimānalo: It was bought out by a group of local and Japanese investors three years ago, who changed the name to OK Poultry, and the egg yolks are now a sunset orange. But everything else—the rustic shop packed with antiques; the bins of fruits and veggies from Waimānalo farmers for sale; the packages of homemade cookies near the register; the friendly Carolyn Kaneshiro, who ran KK Poultry with her husband, Roy, taking orders or sorting eggs—hasn’t changed at all.
Kaneshiro stops chatting with me to answer the phone. “Sorry, we sold out already.” It’s only 10 a.m. and the 5-acre egg farm, with about 13,000 chickens that lay daily, is already out of eggs.
That’s been the case here since the new group of owners—including Hokkai Star Chick, a big poultry farmer in Hokkaido—took over. The premium eggs are sold at the farm— $9.75 for a dozen large B-grade eggs—and at Don Quijote and Nijiya Markets under the name Waimana TKG Eggs, for tamago kake gohan (egg rice). Dozens of restaurants, including MW Restaurant, Senia and Over Easy, order their eggs from OK Poultry, too, specifically for the yolk’s richness and color.
“The eggs taste fresher, the yolk is a beautiful deep yellow-orange,” says Jennifer Lobendahn, who runs Over Easy in Kailua with her husband, Nik. “In our Kailua Eggs dish, the freshness of the yolk breaks into the bacon-cabbage broth, giving the dish an extra richness. We knew we wanted to use local fresh eggs because we knew the difference in quality.”
The key is in the feed, explains retail manager Mieko Takada. The chickens are given an all-natural plant-based feed with corn, vegetables and flowers, and drink water from a special filtration system.
About 100 people a day still stop by the farm to pick up fresh eggs, picked and sorted by hand. Roy, whose parents started the farm in 1947 in the Wai‘alae area before moving to Waimānalo in 1957, works as a part-time consultant. Carolyn runs the shop a couple of times a week. Neither regret selling the operation. The couple can finally go on vacation together.
“This was such an opportunity for us,” says Roy, 75, who still eats eggs every day. “When I visited the Hokkaido farms, I knew [the owners] cared about the customers and making a premium product. Now they want go cage-free and I’m for that. I thought, ‘This is great. Why not?’”
41-656 Kakaina St., Waimānalo , 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (808) 259-7832, okpoultry.com
Sometimes it takes a challenge and a little faith to find your groove.
That’s what happened to Mark and Minda Takaki, who run Shaka Moa Eggs. When Mark, who grew up on a chicken farm in Wai‘anae, took over the old Kiyabu Farm in Mā‘ili in 1998, he didn’t know what he had gotten into. His family raised chickens for other egg farmers in the state. Now, he was running his own egg farm, with 70,000 birds and no accounts. He hustled, convincing local restaurants and wholesalers to buy his eggs. But it was tough. He thought about selling the farm about 10 years ago, but his wife, who had been working at Bank of Hawai‘i, stepped in.
“Something deep down inside me said no, we had to do this,” says Minda, 39, whose grandparents were farmers on Moloka‘i. She quit her job and took over the farm full time, trying to figure out a way to make this work. “I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I was meeting different people, talking to other farmers. I remember crying and saying, “How are we going to pay our bills? What do I do?’”
Then Whole Foods Market asked if she would consider raising the chickens in a cage-free environment so it could sell her eggs in its O‘ahu stores. In less than a year, the Takakis converted their existing henhouses into wide-open living quarters, with lots of room for the birds to walk and fly, natural light and quiet areas for them to lay eggs. The couple had to drastically reduce its flock—now the farm has about 10,000 chickens—but the transition has been worth it. They landed the Whole Foods account, added a few others including Foodland and Times supermarkets, and now sell to nearby restaurants such as Monkeypod Kitchen and Roy’s Ko Olina. And the chickens, Minda says, are happier and healthier.
“And we can see it in the eggs, too,” she adds. “The shells are thicker, the whites and yolks are thicker, too.”
The farm, spread across 7 acres, has grown from just four employees to 20 today. The workers pick eggs by hand in the cage-free houses three times a day—“It’s Easter egg hunting every day,” Minda says, laughing—and wash, sort, grade and pack on-site.
Like other egg farms, Shaka Moa sells its hens that are past their laying prime live to customers to eat as meat. But recently, it started raising meat-specific chickens, slaughtering and processing them at J. Ludovico Farm on the North Shore and selling the whole birds frozen. The Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina and Forage Hawai‘i buy them; the rest are sold at the farm. Once a month it cooks about 150 of its own chickens huli-style and sells the cooked birds to regulars and customers who find out about it via Instagram.
Just another way Shaka Moa sets itself apart from the competition.
“We live by faith,” Minda says. “Seriously, we really do. People can see what we do is out of our heart.”
87-102 Maliona St., Wai‘anae , 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday (808) 696-3823, @shakamoaeggs on Instagram
In 1906 Mankichi Shimabukuro left Okinawa to work in the sugar cane fields of Hawai‘i, with barely any money and no understanding of English. Six years later he married Uto Shimabukuro, a picture bride, who labored alongside her husband in the fields. The couple raised four sons, two cows, 12 pigs and about a hundred chickens.
In the early 1940s, the Shimabukuros moved to Damon Tract and started a poultry business in their backyard with about 200 chickens, some sold for meat and others raised for eggs. In 1947, Mankichi and his sons purchased 5 acres of former cane lands in Wai‘anae and started Mikilua Poultry Farm, which became one of the state’s largest egg farms.
This is where it gets confusing.
Over the years, the farm has operated under two different brands—Ka Lei and Hawaiian Maid. There’s nothing different about these two brands. The eggs come from the same farm and are hand-picked, washed, graded and sorted the exact same way. The parent company is Hawaiian Egg Co. and it operates Eggs Hawai‘i, the company’s distribution arm. Right now, you can purchase fresh eggs from the company’s retail store in Kalihi or in supermarkets. (Its Kaimukī retail shop, Ka Lei Marketplace, closed four years ago.) Dozens of restaurants and hotels, including the Halekūlani and Sheraton Waikīkī, serve these eggs, too.
The Shimabukuro family is still involved in running the farm and business and the eggs sold under its brands are still laid in Wai‘anae. Only until recently has the family started to work on more brand recognition. Sure, people have heard of Ka Lei and Hawaiian Maid, but how many associate it with a local farm in Wai‘anae?
So this year, for the first time, the company started selling its fresh eggs at a farmers market in Wai‘anae, letting customers know its family story and roots in the community.
“Our brands have been out there, but, as a company, we want to remind people about who we are and that, hey, we’ve been here for 70 years,” says Iris Shimabukuro, Mankichi’s granddaughter who runs Eggs Hawai‘i. “Being out in the community is good for us.”
Part of the urgency is the anticipation of Villa Rose, that partnership between two Mainland egg companies that is expected to open a huge facility on the North Shore soon.
“We can’t just say it doesn’t matter if people know where [the eggs] came from. It does. There’s a big farm coming in and we have to strengthen our brand,” Shimabukuro says. “We have to tell people that we’re here, we’ve been here for 70 years. My grandfather came here on a boat for a better life. I don’t know how he did it … but these brands are symbolic of that. This is what my grandparents started and we’re still here.”
419 Waiakamilo Road, Kalihi , 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, (808) 841-7695, eggshawaii.com
Jonathan Herron was destined to raise chickens.
When his grandmother got sick, he and his siblings, who were in her care in Ohio, were put into foster care. He brought with him his pet chicken. “Chickens were like therapy to me,” he says.
He moved to Mexico at 17 and worked on a papaya farm, then to Peru for five years, teaching English and farming. He met his wife and started his own chicken farm, Huevos Las Praderas, which he says produced Peru’s first free-range, pasture-raised eggs, before getting offered a job working for one of the largest egg producers in the U.S. back in Ohio. (We’re talking 15 million birds.)
He moved to Hawai‘i a couple of years ago to work at Mikilua Poultry Farm in Wai‘anae, which sells eggs under the Ka Lei and Hawaiian Maid brands.
But he always had dreams of starting his own farm in the Islands.
So he did.
Last year he leased some land in Wai‘anae and started Hawai‘i Free-Range, the state’s only certified organic egg farm. His 3,000 hens live on a half-acre plot, fenced in to keep predators out but free to roam, take dust baths and forage for insects under mulberry trees and in patches of sweet potatoes. They eat a very expensive plant-based feed made with organic oats, peas, rice and alfalfa. The farm recently earned the Good Egg Award by Compassion for World Farming for its efforts to provide humane living conditions for its hens. Herron even plays salsa music every morning right before feeding.
“Stress can be passed down to the food we eat,” explains Herron, 29, lovingly petting a chicken nestled snug in his arms. “We don’t want to be eating stress. … Look at these chickens. No one can tell me this hen would be happier in a cage.”
His happy chickens lay about 2,800 eggs a day, and he picks them by hand in the laying house. Foodland, Safeway, Whole Foods Market and several restaurants are already interested in his eggs. Because of the high cost of organic feed, he may just focus on free-range eggs, which seem to be what most vendors are interested in anyway.
Until then, Herron is focusing on growing his farm and getting his eggs into stores and restaurants. He recently partnered with Ho‘omau Ke Ola in Wai‘anae, a drug treatment and recovery program, to offer patients the opportunity to work at the farm. The goal is to inspire them to become farmers—specifically poultry farmers.
“We believe in an integrated farming system that strives for sustainability, the enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity. No pesticides, insecticides or any harmful chemicals ever,” Herron says. “Now that’s certified happy.”
87-1059 Papaya Road, Wai‘anae, (808) 861-6464