“Welcome to my edible petting zoo,” says Brandon Lee as he walks around Kaunamano Farm, his piggery on the Hāmākua coast of Hawai‘i Island. Heritage breed Berkshire pigs loll in the grass like lazy, vegan bodybuilders, and a sow nurses day-old piglets. “Brah, those are bacon seedlings,” Lee says.
Today Kaunamano is one of only a handful of farms in the state raising heritage breed pigs. Three years ago Lee, now 25, knew nothing about pig farming. When his brother-in-law, chef Keoni Regidor, lamented the lack of quality pork available for Nāpua Restaurant at the Mauna Lani Beach Club, Lee saw an opportunity. He learned everything he could about hog farming through online research and by visiting Mainland piggeries. Then in 2015 Lee won Kamehameha Schools’ Mahi‘ai Match-Up, an agricultural start-up competition that netted him these twenty acres and some $25,000 in seed money.
What did he do with it? He bought pigs and figured the rest out later. Lee was still installing the fencing as eight sows were being flown in from an heirloom piggery in Santa Cruz, California. “Twenty-two hundred feet of fence was my second purchase,” Lee says. Now his herd has grown to sixty head and is beginning to attract attention. Kaunamano was a featured stop on the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival’s Connoisseur’s Culinary Journey food tour.
Everything on the farm has a purpose: The fleet of Araucana and Marans chickens “peck at bugs, scratch at weeds, prevent disease and lay stacks of eggs,” Lee says. “These eggs are bribes. The logo on my truck is paid for in eggs.” The goats are for milk and eventually cheese, but right now they’re on cleanup duty after the pigs’ all-they-can-eat buffet, a smorgasbord of unsold produce Lee gleans from local markets. Lee delivers water to his pigs from a spring a few dozen feet below the fields using a solar-powered pumping system.
As he strives to elevate Kaunamano’s pork to the level of Kobe beef, Lee still has a lot to learn. And true to his nature, the autodidact plans to do it the hard way. “For me the right way is to find all the wrong ways. Like when I tried to get the meat to taste like pork adobo by feeding them garlic,” Lee says. “I found out pigs hate garlic.”