Big Bird, where are you roaming?

A good local bird is hard to find, but Island eaters have other sustainable choices

When Grandma wanted a plump bird for the holiday table–a local, natural, no-hormone, free-range turkey–she stepped into the yard with an axe. Or maybe she even sent Grandpa out with a shotgun (there are wild turkeys on Big Island).

But if you want a fresh, locally raised turkey for your holiday table this year: Not happening.

Gobbling farmers’ resources

“I think it’s impossible [to find local turkey],” says Luann Gunder, who, with her husband, Gary, operates Tin Roof Ranch in Haleiwa. The couple raise chickens, available at the farm, and sell the eggs at Haleiwa Farmers’ Market.

Last year, the Gunders imported 75 Eastern Wild Turkey chicks at $35 each (!) from the mainland. The chicks are fragile and high-maintenance, and they lost eight birds right away. After much intensive care, and a considerable learning experience for the farmers, full-grown turkeys were ready for order.

Foul price of poultry

“The math didn’t work. There was no way to break even,” Gunder says with regret. She and her husband have five frozen birds in the freezer and no intention of going back into the turkey business for now. Nor does she know of any other growers, among the tight-knit community of a couple of dozen small farms that still produce poultry here, who’ll be selling fresh turkeys this year.

Here, chicky, chicky, chicky…

The farm business is unpredictable, ever-changing, subject to many pressures. It’s not only local turkeys that are lacking–the entire poultry industry in Hawaii is effectively gone. A number of former poultry farms, such as Fox Farm, are in transition and no longer selling birds. The last broiler farm in the Islands, ‘Ewa Brand, closed in 2004. (“Broiler” or “fryer” is chicken talk for birds grown to be used in cooking; those raised for egg production are called “hens,” “biddies” or “breeders.”)

Why? As any farmer or locavore chef can tell you, Island growers have to cope with the astronomical cost of feed, freight, cold storage and land; regulatory stumbling blocks placed in the way of anyone who tries to farm on a small scale, let alone organically; young people from farming families abandoning the business; and the rather delicate health of birds, who can suddenly succumb to disease. As a result, local chickens are–for all these reasons, as well as the lack of economies of scale–much more expensive than shipped-in birds.

Only one commercial bird breeding business remains–the 75-plus-year-old Asagi Hatchery on Kanakanui Street in Kalihi. The Asagi family sells chicks to the handful of remaining poultry farms in the Islands, including the four major egg producers on Oahu and a smattering of tiny, part-time farms selling eggs for meat “out the back door.”

Farmer Shane of Papaaloa on the Big Island says he’s ordered chicks from the mainland but some always expire on the way over. Never so with Asagi. Peeping balls of daffodil fluff are shipped from Asagi to the Big Island within hours of order, and arrive in good shape.

How to raise a brood

The most common homegrown chicken-rearing technique is to employ the birds as live lawnmowers, explains Fox.

The tiny cluckers spend 12-14 days in a warm and safe brooder, growing into scrawny adolescents.

Then they are placed in floorless wire boxes, which allow the poultry access to the grass and whatever insect goodies they can scrounge under their feet. The pens, technically known as “tractors,” Gunder says, are moved about the property once or twice a day, by which time the birds have manicured the section in question.

The chickens thus live in the open and grow fat and fluffy in just 6-8 weeks, but are unable to scatter onto neighboring property or become pests. “They just eat and sleep and walk around and peck away,” Fox said.

In contrast, at Mother Goose, flocks of geese roam free among the coffee trees.

Walking on eggshells

Both the Gunders and the Foxes sell their dressed chickens for $4 a pound, far above the price of imported, processed, prepackaged chickens.

But Gunder says their customers are faithful and motivated. They really want to know where their food comes from. They want to support agriculture in Hawaii. They enjoy coming out to the farm and seeing the birds. And they get a huge kick out of the multicolored eggs her birds lay, from chocolate to blue to white to green.

The Foxes, whose land is near Laupahoehoe, have been raising a few hundred birds at a time, and they hope to soon attempt an operation that can handle 20,000 birds, selling to restaurants, farmers’ markets and specialty food stores. But first, they’re remodeling their house to accomodate their growing family, so there will be no birds from Fox Farm this holiday season.

And they’ll have to jump through a lot of hoops before they can realize their more ambitious plans. Gunder said the regulations governing poultry imports, organic farming and so on are laborious, expensive and difficult to navigate.

Tops in taste

But customers, including Island über-chef Alan Wong says fresh local chickens are worth the wait and the price. “The Asagi sisters are trying to revive the old family business and the birds [are] outstanding. On the Big Island, I once cooked with Mother Goose free-range chickens and they were outstanding, too.”

Fox says customers often call back to say they never knew how good chicken–a rather undervalued meat source–could be. Gunder says, for many, it’s as though they’d never eaten chicken before, didn’t know what fresh poultry tasted like because commercially raised birds are so flavorless. “It’s gotten so what you’re tasting is the sauce,” she said.

Island demand: The thighs have it

Wong says he was excited, recently, to receive a sample of birds grown by Asagi in a new, experimental project. “We really could use locally raised poultry, especially chicken,” he says, noting how many huge, popular local dishes are chicken-based–huli huli chicken, chicken adobo, shoyu chicken, mochiko chicken, chicken musubi, Korean fried chicken, chicken etc.

Years ago, a grocery meat department manager told me that, when he moved here from the mainland, he was convinced the store’s high-figure order for chicken thighs was in error. On the mainland, it’s all about chicken breast. Later, he learned that Hawaii is the number one per capita consumer of chicken thighs–mostly used for those homey, plate lunch dishes.

Ask for local, buy it local

If action isn’t taken–by individual entrepeneurs and farmers, by restaurants and chefs, by supporters of the locavore movement and non-industrial food–even this small network of poultry businesses may fail.

In an interview in 2008, when egg producers across Oahu banded together to bring the problem to the public’s attention, Asagi sounded another warning about the dangers of losing the poultry industry: We lose knowledge. Growing chickens in Hawaii is different than growing them on the mainland. Some generic USDA pamphlet is not going to cut it for a farmer just starting out.

Which is why, when you go shopping for a chicken, a turkey or a duck for Thanksgiving, you’ll have to put some extra effort into the project. You’ll probably have to order in advance and pay a premium. But it will be worth it.

The roasting

For smaller families, or for the ease of fitting everything in the oven, a chicken may well make sense. The ability to make a succulent roast chicken is considered one of the defining skills for any chef–or home cook, for that matter. Recalling his days at Lutèce, Wong says it’s far from an easy skill to master.

He describes his roasting technique. “I like a bigger bird for the family table, mostly because I want it to have a lot of fat, [which] makes a crispier skin… I like to truss the bird, sort of boxing it with string to create flat sides. I like to put the bird in a pan to sear all sides on high heat and brown the skin before putting it in the oven to roast. In the cavity, I place a pat of butter, some rosemary, some thyme. . . [or] place butter under the skin of the breast before roasting.”

The trick, said Wong, is to roast the bird to the point where the juices run clear after having run pink just five minutes earlier–you must check often toward the end of cooking so the meat is not overdone. “This takes some practice,” he said. No time to start like now.

Maui-born Wanda Adams is a freelance writer and editor, and author of “The Island Plate” and three other cookbooks.