Wanted: Local Pork
There’s just something about pork that inspires salivation. Kalua pig, barbecue ribs, tonkatsu, lechon, pig’s feet. The Web world is reverent to abstraction about bacon, merchandising this obsession with logo T-shirts, coozies, whatever.
But for many cultures, pigs are not only food sources, but a quantification of wealth. Pigs are ceremonial food in China, Okinawa, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. That dual heritage of sustenance and value underlies the reason that pigs were first brought to Hawaii as an essential foodstuff for making homes on new islands. Even in the 20th century, hog farming helped to diversify Hawaii’s waning plantation economy.
Yet today, in the midst of rising locavorism and a greater awareness of food security, local pork languishes behind the curve. While shoppers can find varieties of “island beef” at many supermarkets, it’s nearly impossible to find “island pork” in the meat section. If you can, chances are that the pig was not raised on-island at all. Glenn Shinsato, co-owner of Shinsato Farms in Kahaluu with his wife, Amy, notes that “the term ‘island pork’ or ‘local pork’ only means that it was slaughtered here. It may have been raised elsewhere [and] shipped here.”
“The local pork industry has been on a declining trend for decades,” explains Dan Nakasone, co-founder of She Grows Food, a social enterprise firm that supports women working in agriculture. He names “competition with imported pork, cost of imported feed, no generational succession, development encroachment [and] waste issues” as reasons.
If you find local pork, chances are it came from Shinsato Farms’s slaughterhouse. “Amy has been supplying Higa Meats, who distributes the products to several restaurants,” Nakasone says, adding that Shinsato’s is “the only [locally] branded pork I know of, other than Kaneshiro Farm pork on Kauai.” Higa Meats also retails Shinsato pork, as does Kokua Market.
Lynette Larson, general manager of Kokua Market, emailed me a picture of its freezer aisle, chock-full of tidy Shinsato packages. She proudly emphasizes the co-op’s relationship with the farm. “We feel really lucky to be able to offer Shinsato pork . . . When we made the commitment to Glenn and Amy, we stopped carrying any mainland pork.” Although local pork is likely to be more expensive than not, one advantage to buying community-raised is knowing that money and precious expertise stays in local hands. Kokua’s cooperative owners have the added bonus of a 20-cent-per-pound discount on all local meat products.
Or, as Larson puts it, the quality is worth the cost. “I’m a vegetarian, but when I cook Shinsato for my family, it reminds me of growing up in rural Montana where my parents would buy half hogs . . . [to] feed our family of 11. It just smells like it’s supposed to, and the fat content is super low.”
Another way to access high-quality local pork is to participate in Oahu Fresh’s new pork-share with Shinsato Farms. Oahu Fresh operates a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, a distribution system for small farmers who otherwise might not be able to reach many consumers. According to co-owner Matt Johnson, the Shinsatos approached Oahu Fresh “because they were looking for more ways to distribute their product and liked the CSA concept.”
With this subscription, customers sign up in advance for a share of a pig. When 10 shares have been purchased, the pig is slaughtered. Shares cost $75, and customers can expect 10 to 15 pounds of meat in various cuts. Cuts include shoulder roasts, pork chops, ground pork, pork belly and ham hocks. Two pigs have been butchered so far, and Johnson expects to continue every other month. “Slaughtering on demand is easy to manage,” he says, “but there’s some give-and-take on the market end. Not everyone wants a mystery bag full of random cuts of meat, so you have to be adventurous.”
In the end, the lack of places selling local pork boils down to market decline: Oahu vendors only offer pork from one farm. That farm rightly has a lot of fans, but a healthy market would allow more farmers to get in the game.
According to Amy Shinsato, the problem is poor infrastructure and the lack of farms. “It would be possible for other slaughterhouses to be built, but first there must be a supply of animals going through for it to be feasible. [Glenn and I] would definitely support this idea, because we both feel that the hog production in Hawaii is on a decline.”
Effective distribution is key to the industry’s survival. While small farmers have a better shot at grabbing some market share with a CSA, stores offer reliability. Considering how much meat people consume (the USDA estimates that one person eats about 50 pounds of pork per year) and how most of the pork we eat in Hawaii is imported, it is crucial for local pork’s–and your stomach’s–long-term success to make pork more available. But if you want it, you have to ask for it.