Customers flock to buy fresh-laid eggs at Isle farm
A steady stream of cars and trucks drives up a narrow tree-lined road in Wahiawa Heights to buy fresh eggs from the Peterson family farm, which celebrates 100 years in business this year.
Sharon Peterson Cheape now runs the farms with her father, James, and Uncle Alan, but she's more comfortable with the title of assistant manager.
Many customers buy several flats of eggs and often offer to buy whatever the farm has a lot of that day. "What do you need to get rid of?" they ask.
"They'll do whatever they can to help keep us in business," Cheape said. They order their eggs from the half-door opening to the egg room where customers can see the eggs come off the washer.
Customers buy brown eggs, white eggs, some are large, extra large, jumbo or super jumbo, all Grade B. Last week, the eggs were selling for $2.55 a dozen for white extra large or $6.30 for a flat of 30; a nickel more for a dozen brown; and 15 cents more for a flat.
The eggs have no antibiotics or hormones and that's part of why firefighter Keali'i Vannatta, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter, Sunshine, drive from 'Aiea about once a week. "Big eggs and it's affordable," he said.
Cheape said the farm has been doing well in recent years — seeing an increase in people consciously shopping for local eggs over the last five to 10 years as part of a trend toward people shopping local.
And that's a reversal in trend within Cheape's adult life. Back in the 1980s, she remembers, 21 egg farms on O'ahu producing about 85 percent of Hawai'i's eggs.
Now that's down to four: KK Poultry Farm in Waimanalo; Maili Moa behind Ma'ili Elementary School; Petersons' and Mikilua Poultry Farm in Wai'anae, which sells to supermarkets as Hawaiian Maid, Ka Lei, Times or Malli brands.
A Poultry Task Force in 2007 estimated that these local farms now supply about 35 percent of Hawai'i's eggs, which rose about 5 percent from a decade before.
Cheape said the price of feed tripled in recent years and fuel oil also dramatically increased the price of shipping and cheap Mainland eggs also made life harder for the family farms.
But renowned Island chef Alan Wong showcases fresh local food including Petersons' eggs, which in turn inspires other foodies and home chefs to buy local.
"Alan is just a huge advocate for small local farms," Cheape said. "He kind of kick-started it."
Felisa Espresion drives from Waipahu with her husband, Florentino, and often picks up eggs for their extended family and friends.
They prefer the brown eggs and the prices that are considerably cheaper than the supermarket. "I can buy more, plus the eggs are fresh," Espresion said.
Other people notice the difference when they bake. Cheape said she gets comments like "I can't make my orange chiffon cake with those cheap Mainland eggs."
The founder of the farm was James Hopper Peterson Sr. — Sharon's grandfather — who started out with dairy cows on 18 acres he bought in Wahiawa Heights.
Eventually, he shifted more to chickens although they kept cows around for decades. Her father, James Peterson Jr., and uncle, Alan Peterson, took over. Now 80, and 78, the two men still come to work every day, grading eggs on a scale that was owned by their dad, taking care of the chickens and getting the farm work done.
James remembers when he was around 11 years old and the attack on Pearl Harbor caused some damage to the farm.
"We were getting ready to go to Sunday school and the Japanese planes started coming over. They machine-gunned the farm as they would go over," he said
"Fortunately, our family was unscathed. We didn't know what was going on," he said, and the bullets killed only one rooster and one chick.
James said it was always ingrained in him to follow in his father's footsteps. "It's just interesting, the many problems and challenges," and he enjoys taking care of the animals.
And he's pleased his daughter is following suit. The farm has seen some ups and downs, with diseases and competition and cut back considerably after a Honolulu poultry processor shut down,
"We're fortunate to have been on land we owned instead of leased land," he said.
In the mid-1990s, Peterson said the farm peaked at about 128,000 birds with chickens in Wahiawa Heights and Kipapa.
Cheape, 52, said she's glad to be carrying on the family tradition. And each generation brings new ideas. She earned a bachelor's degree in animal science from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and a master's in avian science from the University of California-Davis.
"I really appreciated just the discipline that working on a farm gives you," she said. "It certainly doesn't make you much money but it's a way of life. It makes me sad that Hawai'i used to be an agricultural community" but that gave way to tourism as the dominant industry.
"I want all of us to be more self-sustaining," she said.
And she realizes how much the family farm means to her and the community and has been inspired by her father and uncle — "humble hardworking men who live by their values and morals."