Mahi’ai Moa Program to Boost Local Meat Production
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Reporter
When it comes to Sust’ainable Molokai’s food sovereignty programs, the eggs came before the chickens on Molokai. The nonprofit launched an egg production program several years ago that has successfully made a dent in the island’s import of 100,000 eggs per month.
Now, the island is on its way to decreasing its dependence on imported chicken meat through a program called Mahiʻai Moa, or broiler chicken, project. Launched in April, the three-year program is in its pilot phase, with 18 Molokai residents participating.
Manu Adolpho, a Ho’olehua homesteader, is one of the first cohort members. He and his family also participated in the egg production program.
“I kind of feel like it’s important for a lot of us on the island being able to provide for our own food,” he said. “But it was also just very rewarding for me and my family to just be able to raise the chickens and go out there and collect the eggs and do all that stuff. So when they had the opportunity to do the broiler birds, that was something that I thought that I could also do to help with sustainability.”
Mahi’ai Moa is a mix of established farmers and those who don’t have experience with animal husbandry.
Some want to reduce the island’s dependency on the barge, some want to create a business, and others just have the goal of feeding their ‘ohana.
Funding came from USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Administration for Native Americans, and the program is targeted at Native Hawaiian farmers and beginning farmers.
“I definitely want to be able to not go to the store to go buy chicken and just provide that for my family for sure, but also yes, the opportunity to sell to the community, just start moving in the direction of self sustainability as an island, as a community,” said Adolpho. “So that’s kind of the end goal.”
For each participant, the Mahiʻai Moa program provides education, $4,000 in supplies, two batches of chicks to get started, and business startup expertise. Sust’ainable Molokai is partnering Julius Ludovico of J. Ludovico Farm on Oahu for hands on training as well as virtual classes.
One of the keys to making this program work is a partnership with Molokai Livestock Cooperative, Molokai’s slaughterhouse. The grants that funded the Mahi’ai Moa project are also covering the cost of a new, specialized and certified poultry slaughter unit that’s coming to Molokai this fall.
Jamie Ronzello is Sust’ainable Molokai food sovereignty program director.
“We put a survey out into the community before we started this program, to see, first of all, was there a need? Were people interested in this program? And then what elements of the program are people interested in… do they need the supplies? Do they need the knowledge? Do they even want to process themselves?” she said. “And resoundingly, there was a big majority who wanted to raise birds. They want to consume the birds, but there was a good percentage that was really happy if someone else did the processing.”
She said farmers can do their own processing at home for sale with an exemption if they prefer.
“We wanted to give them the option of [slaughterhouse processing] if you just don’t want to deal with the paperwork — because a lot of people don’t want to have to go through the process with the Department of Health — the cost, the associated fees, the paperwork, all of that, and so partnering with Molokai Livestock Coop will give them the option to basically farm, like farmers want to do — they just want to raise their animals, and then be able to bring it to a marketplace and not have to deal with all the other bureaucratic stuff that sometimes comes along with processing,” she said.
The program is all about providing options – whether in processing, or when residents walk into the store.
“This just gives people a choice,” said Lori Pastrana, Sust’ainable Molokai Manager of Farmer Training. “Do they want to pay for a local fresh chicken? I love choices and I think [others] like that option too. The choice to be able to spend on quality, because they’ll be able to see. We do have some families that struggle where they have to go for the box chicken that comes in. We hope that our island economy will be able to support themselves, where they don’t have to, but that’s probably a long term goal for us as an island. But at least it gives us a choice, right? We’re not just stuck.”
Pastrana said maybe someday the program will continue to grow, people will notice the difference in local meat and as an island, choose to make a switch from imported chicken.
She said she’s seen a trend toward preference for local eggs, and Sust’ainable Molokai’s Poultry Egg Production Project (PEEP) is gaining traction. Now, multiple farmers who started in the program several years ago to pursue large-scale egg production. Sust’ainable Molokai regularly collects around 1500 eggs weekly for sale from local farmers – and Pastrana and Ronzello said that’s just a small percentage of what’s produced on island. Molokai eggs are now sold in the island’s main grocery stores, the nonprofit’s Mobile Market and through private sales.
Ronzello said for her, success of the program isn’t always a number. Access is a key indicator of the program reaching its goals.
“To me, success is like if we walk into the grocery store and we see local Molokai chicken, in Friendly Market or Misaki’s, or straight from the Molokai Livestock Coop, and you can go in there and buy fresh chicken from there… So part of the program is to increase production and poultry but not only for commercial but also for subsistence. We’ll be tracking those metrics… You may be just raising it for your own ‘ohana, or to trade and share, but then also being able to get it into those grocery stores is going to be a pretty big benchmark, I think, for me.”
For Adolpho, the Mahi’ai Moa program has been “eye opening.”
“I don’t think that the layperson realizes how much work and how much thought and effort goes into raising broiler birds, so that part has been extremely just eye opening and gratifying,” he said.
The chickens go from hatch to slaughter in just six to eight weeks. During that time, they need a nutrient rich diet. Feed is one of the biggest expenses in raising the birds – something Ronzello said may be a long term goal to produce on island but for now, production costs are too high to be practical.
Adolpho said the mentality is different between raiding egg producing chickens and the broiler chickens.
“The mentality of both raising and the marketing of broiler birds is just completely different from what you would expect, from some of the other stuff that we’ve done,” he said. “Obviously you’re caring for the animal, but the with the PEEP [egg] program, it’s very long term… you develop a relationship with these egg laying chickens and you see them every day when you go out there and feed them and you kind of want to take care of them because they’re producing those eggs. And [for broiler] the mentality definitely changes. It’s, ‘OK, I’m going to feed you and at the end of this process, you’re gone and the next ones are coming through,’ so that for sure has been one of the biggest things for me…. All of that has just been very eye opening.”
At the end of the day, the program is slowly changing the way residents think about food.
“Now they understand the big picture of us being self-reliant as an idea,” said Pastrana. “When you think about it, we’re heavily reliant on Young Brothers — we saw it during the COVID. That barge doesn’t come in, we’re toast.”
Pastrana said she’s also noticed a generational shift in how people get food, and the attitudes surrounding it.
“My mom comes from a generation, like the store wasn’t really common for them,” she said. “They raised everything themselves. They gathered from the ocean. They raised their chicken… It was such a hard life for them that when they had the convenience, it was like, sure, take it. I think as a society we sometimes go for convenience, but now we’re kind of going back to it, because we’re seeing how much convenience has affected us, our children, our learning, our health all of that is being impacted and so it impacts our community.”
The three-year Mahiʻai Moa program will include multiple Molokai cohorts. For more information or how to be involved in a future cohort, visit sustainablemolokai.org/food-sovereignty/mahi-ai-moa.