With a background as a jet-setting software developer, Lehua Fitch makes an unlikely pig farmer. But it might be her experience in business that gives her a fresh perspective on agriculture in Hawaii.
Fitch and her husband, David, are the founders of Malama Farm, raising pasture-fed Berkshire pigs ("the Kobe beef of pork" she says) for sale to high-end restaurants on Maui. She says the business is a "labor of love" intended to demonstrate that sustainable, family-scale farming can still be viable in Hawaii.
"We want this to be part of a larger movement," she says.
Lehua and David Fitch didn’t have a background in agriculture when they started Malama Farm four years ago. Today, they sell humanely raised heritage pork to high-end restaurants on the island. The Fitches rotate their 35 pigs through fresh pastures, provide mobile shelters, wallows and scratching posts for them, and feed them fresh fruits and vegetables as part of their plan to produce sustainable and humanely raised meat.
SARA SMITH photo
EMMA STOLLER-WHITNEY photo
Lehua Fitch grew up in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island and graduated from high school on the Mainland. She went on to found a successful company developing software for the hospitality and loyalty industries, a job that allowed her to travel all over the world.
Fitch bought property on Oahu and had always planned on retiring to Hawaii but soon realized she didn't want to wait that long before moving back.
"The more you travel, the more you realize where home is to you," she says.
She and her husband also wanted to raise their children with a more rural lifestyle and started thinking about living on the Neighbor Islands with a "gentleman's farm - something with horses or donkeys or something," she recalls.
Around the same time, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and friends also experienced health problems. That caused Fitch to begin thinking deeply and learning more about health and diet. But the more she read, the more upset she became about the modern, industrialized food system.
"Being animal lovers, and also meat eaters, we were particularly concerned about the way the meat we are eating was being treated," she says.
With more research and thinking, Fitch and her husband agreed to try their hand at farming and came up with a business plan for a humane and sustainable pig farm on 4 acres in Haiku. They started Malama Farm in 2010.
"We wanted to prove a model that brought back some of the original wisdom of farming but also applied some more modern techniques that we felt the animals could benefit from," she says.
Her husband, a woodworker, designed portable shelters that can be moved around the farm as the pigs rotate from pasture to pasture; solar-powered electric fencing keeps them safely contained. The rotational grazing system, a concept widely used by ranchers tending livestock in open pastures, helps keep the land from being overgrazed. The family also uses chickens in mobile coops to follow the pigs through their pasture rotation; the hens help clean up the pig waste, fertilize the land with their manure, and produce eggs, which provide a protein food source for the pigs.
The farm's 35 pigs thrive on the system, because it allows them to stay in a clean environment, which they prefer, she says, but it also protects the land.
"When we move them, the land has time to heal, and it actually comes back stronger and in better condition than it was before," she says.
The pigs also eat very well, dining on fresh foods including breadfruit, sweet potato, taro, apple bananas, guava and avocado. Lehua and David Fitch try to grow much of the animal feed on their property, but they also gather from nearby families who may have a surplus of homegrown fruit that is going to waste, and they are currently talking with Maui Brewing Co. about the possibility of collecting some of the "spent grains" left over from the brewing process.
"It's always top quality," Lehua Fitch says. "We don't feed any slop. I think there's a time and a place for that, feeding waste products, but we choose not to, and we think it provides a great flavor to the meat."
Berkshire pigs are a heritage breed known for their highly marbled meat, which makes the pork more tender and flavorful.
Currently, Malama Farms pork is being served at several fine-dining restaurants around Maui, including Merriman's, Capische and Gerard's, as well as restaurants at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, the Grand Wailea and the Makena Beach & Golf Resort.
"We didn't know the hotels would spend the time and effort to do that - we thought they'd want like 500 pork chops or something we couldn't do - but they have been phenomenal supporters," she says.
The meat also will soon be available at retail at The Market in Wailea, where customers can buy butcher cuts, sausage and salami.
Fitch says the intensive amount of work involved in her farm has been an "eye opener," but the couple designed the farm to allow them to continue other ventures on the side. She says she currently spends anywhere from two hours working on the farm to "all day."
Being able to continue other work part time is key to making farming viable, she says.
"One of the things we knew we had to prove is that it has to be sustainable and economically viable," she says. "Sustainability isn't just about the environment, it's sustainable as a business."
She says one of the most rewarding things about starting the project has been seeing her daughters, now 3 years and 6 months, growing up on a farm and helping out with chores.
"You're not going to get rich off it, but it's a labor of love," she says. "It's really helped us connect with the food we eat, feel a part of this community, and it's also been an amazing experience as a family."
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at email@example.com. Neighbors and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.