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Egging On

Local farmers succeed in building this fragile business

Since eight of Hawaii's nine commercial egg farms are family-run operations, odds were good that one among Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser's 26 cousins would take over the family business, which was started by her immigrant grandfather in 1947. The big surprise was that she ended up in the egg business.

"My grandfather wanted me to be a teacher," says the 46-year-old president of Mikilua Poultry, with a chuckle. Instead, the third-generation farmer marks her 20th anniversary this year, with one of the largest of Oahu's four commercial egg farms. The Big Island has three such farms and Maui and Kauai have one each.

While 55 egg-farm operations are listed statewide by the Department of Agriculture, these nine operate as commercial poultry farms, according to Shimabukuro-Geiser. The others are generally backyard raisers or hobbyists, with enough producing chickens to be reported statistically. After years of recent decline, egg producers may have some cause for celebration, with cumulative egg production for the first 10 months of last year above the same 10-month period in 2002, which posted $8.7 million in sales. The industry has shrunk by almost a third from 1997's $12.9 million in sales.

Despite the decline, egg production still holds the largest percentage share of the local market among the state's livestock industries, which include beef, hog, and chicken production. According to Shimabukuro-Geiser, Hawaii egg farmers produce more than 50 percent of the eggs sold in the Islands. Only local eggs can be sold with the "Island Fresh" label at supermarkets, under such brand names as Ka Lei, Hawaiian Maid, Maile, Maili Moa, Big Island Poultry, Kona Laid, Hawaiian Fresh and Maui Fresh.

PASS THE EGGS: Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser and her cousin, Glen Shimabukuro, inspect egg crates at Mikilua Poultry's commercial egg farm. Photo: Ronen Zilberman

Bringing business savvy and education to the farm today is a must, says Shimabukuro-Geiser. She and Sharon Peterson Cheape, classmates at University of California at Davis' graduate school in agriculture, are more typical of today's third-generation egg farmers. Peterson Cheape, granddaughter of the founder of Peterson Upland Farms in Wahiawa, is president of the Hawaii Egg Producers Association (HEPA), the local cooperative of egg farmers statewide.

As a "pocket" market, local eggs are not exported, and must be sold and consumed in the state. As a result, they face stiff competition from cheaper Mainland imports, and must rely on local consumer support and loyalty to sustain their industry. Land-use issues, including urban encroachment and the high cost of leased ag lands, have plagued many farmers. One farmer recently went out of business as a producer, switching to distribution, because of high lease costs, says Shimabukuro-Geiser, whose family owns its own farm land.

Transportation expenses are another big factor in egg farming in the Islands, with the cost of imported feed alone accounting for about 60 percent of the cost of production, according to Shimabukuro-Geiser.

"The public needs to be aware of what it costs our local farmers to bring fresh Island eggs to market," says Peterson Cheape.

In 2000, HEPA voluntarily adopted the Hawaii Egg Quality Assurance Plan, with food-safety standards that exceed current requirements for sanitation, proper refrigeration/storage, consistent documentation and healthy, disease-free local breed stock to assure consumers of the highest quality eggs. Since then, there has been no outbreak of egg-related diseases in the Islands.

Despite the difficulties of egg farming, Shimabukuro-Geiser is looking forward to 2004 as an improvement over last year. Balancing out a projected historic high in feed prices this year will be the end of a three-year surplus of Mainland eggs flooding the local market and depressing prices. Local farmers are also exploring diversification into specialty eggs, such as organic, free-range and fertile eggs.

Since eggs are the most complete source of amino acids in a single food product and an important part of the currently popular Atkins high-protein diet, local farmers could see a rise in sales in 2004, eggs-actly what they need.

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