Producing Pastured Chicken And Influencing Change On Oahu

J. Ludovico Farm pastured chicken
J. Ludovico Farm pastured chicken
Julius Ludovico talks chicken with fellow farmer, Amy Shinsato at the Honolulu Farmer’s Market

If you walk over to the Neal S. Blaisdell Center on a Wednesday night you will see rows of white tents, tables full of fresh local fruits and vegetables, the Shinsatos selling 2Lady farmers’ pork and groups huddled around picnic tables slurping up hot bowls of pho at The Pig and the Lady stand.

If you aren’t paying close enough attention you would never know that you can also buy fresh local chicken at this market. In fact, it’s most likely the only farmer’s market on Oahu where you will find local pastured chicken.

At a modest table with no signage, probably scattered with some jars of honey and bunches of apple bananas, you will find a man with a long beard and thick black rimmed glasses named Julius. Julius owns and operates J. Ludovico farm, a chicken farm, slaughterhouse and processing facility on Oahu.

Tired from a long week of working on the farm, you will soon discover that Julius enjoys working the farmer’s market because it is essentially the only way he ever gets to take a “break”.

Almost every week I come down to the market to buy a chicken and chat with Julius. We talk about natural farming, how he got into the chicken business and what his hopes and dreams are for his farm. He’s a smart man. He is also extremely thoughtful when it comes to his business and delightfully unapologetic when it comes to his opinions on natural farming.

The inside scoop

Not everyone always makes the time to stick around and get to know their local farmer. Which is a shame. You may have the best intentions to buy healthy foods or support local businesses, but until you engage, chances are you know pretty close to nothing about what you are buying or who you are supporting. In the past 6 months of getting to know Julius and his farm I have learned a lot about natural farming and why it is really damn hard to find pastured chicken on the island.

Julius’s farm is a rare breed on Oahu and his story is remarkable.

You can take the boy off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy

Julius grew up in the Philippines raising pigs with his Mom. He remembers always raising them with the intention to have one to eat and one to sell. When the family picked up and moved to Hawaii all of that changed. Julius became an accounting major at the University of Hawaii and found himself working for a non-profit called The Partners In Development Foundation.

But, Julius missed his days growing up, raising pigs. So, it wasn’t surprising that after being introduced to the principals of Korean natural farming by Hawaiian agriculture expert, Mike Dupont at work one year he decided to quit the company and go back to farming.

The next year, Julius and his wife Jamie moved to a one and a half acre farm in Pupukea and bought 16 pigs. They were the second farm on the island to practice Korean natural farming. A system that utilizes naturally occurring bacteria and other microorganisms to fertilize soil and care for animals without chemicals. The result is healthy soil, high crop yields, zero waste and animal pens that don’t smell or attract flies.

Although they were smaller and simpler versions, Julius built five pens modeled after the Korean natural farming system that he learned about from Mike.

Eventually Julius realized that what he had built was a labor of love. The couple realized that they could never scale the operation large enough to make a profit. So, reluctantly Julius sold off all of his pigs.

How Julius “accidentally” became a chicken farmer

After selling off the pigs, Jamie suggested that they try their hand at raising chickens. Julius, being open to the suggestion, agreed and five months later they owned 50 hens all laying eggs.

Baffled as to what to do with all the eggs, Julius went over to his kid’s elementary school and signed up to work the North Shore Country farmer’s market.

After completely selling out at his first market, Julius realized that there was a big demand there for local, pastured eggs. The couple bought more chickens, produced more eggs and kept adding more and more markets to their schedule every week. The hustle was real and ultimately they just couldn’t keep up with the demand. Completely exhausted and burned out, Julius started cutting back, finally only committing to one market a week, The Honolulu farmer’s market at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center.

One day a fellow friend and farmer of Julius’s was placing an order for some meat chickens. He asked Julius if he was interested in buying any. Julius was on the fence but his friend insisted, saying that since he was already going to buy some that he may as well order some for Julius too.

Julius opted to raise pastured chickens using the Korean natural farming practices he had used with his pigs. He asked the farmer’s market if it was ok to started selling his chickens along with his eggs. Being naïve at the time he didn’t realize that he would need special permits in order to sell his chickens. Now Julius had a new problem, he had to track down the USDA FSIS supervisor to find out how he could acquire a permit.

After searching for the supervisor for two months Julius had to laugh at himself. He had actually been living next door to him all along. The supervisor told Julius exactly what to do, he did it and a few months later Julius was in the chicken business.

From the farm to the table

The first restaurant Julius approached was Real Gastropub. He brought them a sample of his chicken and, after finding out if they were interested, disclosed that it would be two months until he could produce their first order. Real agreed and after just one delivery the chef was hooked. He no longer wanted a few chickens every couple of months, he wanted 12 chickens a week.

Julius realized he had a problem on his hands. He had the demand, but since the chickens took two months to grow, he didn’t have the supply for a weekly delivery. After a lot of thinking and researching Julius finally figured out how to make it happen. That is when the real chicken production started.

A year later Andrew Le from The Pig and The Lady called up. They had heard about Julius’s chickens and wanted in. Real Gastropub had officially put J. Ludovico farm on the map. They were now the go-to for pastured chicken and all the high end restaurants on Oahu wanted it on their menu.

Controversy at the market

As the farm to table movement grew more popular on Oahu so did the demand for local, organic ingredients. Customers at the market started coming up to Julius looking for his certified organic sign. When Julius informed them that he was not indeed certified, they looked at him confused (even repulsed sometimes) and would keep walking.

“My farm is not certified organic nor do I plan to get certified”, he says. “I feel like there are other ways to do it. It may come down to a little bit more education or information but I’m not getting certified, it’s too expensive.”

I know from my talks with Julius that he does not use fertilizer or chemicals. In fact, chemicals scare him. He moves his birds everyday. They eat grass and worms in addition to commercial grain.

He admits he gets frustrated sometimes having to explain to people about his natural farming practices only to get shut down by customers who don’t understand.

“Just because something is labeled organic it does not mean that it is chemical and pesticide free. In fact, there are synthetic chemicals on that registry that the organic lobbyists petition the USDA to keep. When you are doing small-scale agriculture (like in your backyard) you don’t need chemicals or pesticides. But when you are farming on a larger scale (even just an acre) there are certain challenges that you are never going to have a solution to without pesticides. The use of organic bacteria (such as BT ) used for pesticides is regular practice on many certified organic farms”, Julius explained.

The other question Julius is inevitably always asked is if he gives his chickens GMO feed. “When people ask me if the corn I feeds my chickens is GMO I say, I don’t know but, it is likely, since unfortunately 96% of all corn in America is now GMO”, he says.

Tired of being told week after week from customers that he should feed his chickens non-GMO feed, he decided to look into it. “I dug deep”, he said. “I looked at the literature on the Non-GMO project’s non-GMO feed. And what I found out is that, they have a threshold. Let’s say they get a container of corn for example, they take a sample and do a PCR test on it and if it doesn’t go beyond 10%, meaning if there is 10% GMO in that batch of corn they will label it “non-GMO.” I though about this and realized that if I bought the non-GMO feed I would be paying a premium, have to raise my prices and my feed could still potentially contain GMOs. I just didn’t feel comfortable with that.”

Julius says he no longer engages with customers who turn their noses up to his natural, yet not certified organic, chicken unless they ask the right questions. “I don’t have time to educate everyone and if someone is stuck in their ways or uninformed then that’s their fault. I’m not here to educate them, I’m here to feed my family”, Julius says.

Luckily, as I have found out on my own, if you do ask and you do seem interested than Julius will tell you everything you want to know.

Desperately trying for sustainable farming in Hawaii

A while back Julius was teaching and taking frequent trips to the Big Island. Mike Dupont invited him, several other local farmers and a couple of the animal nutrition experts from the University of Hawaii to a meeting in Hilo. What they discussed at this meeting was, “What do we have in Hawaii in abundance and what can we do with it?”

Julius left the meeting intrigued and curious. Two years would pass before he and Mike would be reconnected. Julius asked Mike, “What happened to the ideas we came up with at that meeting?” Mike told Julius that he analyzed the list of ingredients and created a data base. Without hesitation, Julius said, “I’m farming chickens, lets do a feed trial.” Mike agreed to it.

Working with a local mill Julius proved that if his farm milled it’s own feed locally, cutting out the need for shipping, than they could cut their costs in half.

Now came the hard part. Getting the feed just right.

It is not a matter of just finding ingredients that are in abundance. It’s also a matter of creating a blend of ingredients that creates the perfect balance of nutrients for the chickens to thrive on.

From talking to Julius I learned that there is a reason why commercial feed is made up of soy, corn and wheat (farm subsidies for GMO crops also play a role I’m sure). The combination provides the exact amount of protein, carbs and fiber needed for a chicken’s diet. Julius’s challenge is to find local ingredients that would replace each of those without disrupting that formula.

“We have tried macadamia nuts and they are amazing. They are high in protein but can only replace about 35 percent of the soybeans. Anything more than that and the chickens do not do well. They just don’t have the same amount of protein that the soybeans do. Next, is replacing the wheat and corn. We are currently doing a cassava trial to see if that could replace the wheat. But there are certain properties of corn that are irreplaceable, so if you want to replace corn you need to have a few different ingredients. The corn doesn’t necessarily make the chickens grow bigger but the carbs do give them the energy they need”, Julius said.

Julius wondered why they couldn’t just make a blend of cassava, macadamia nuts, corn and soy so that they could at least eliminate the need to ship over wheat. Mike explained to him that they can’t do that quite yet. They need to do trials with each ingredient separately first to isolate the nutrients and find out what each ingredient does exactly for the chickens. He said that sometimes combining certain ingredients can potentially turn them into anti-nutrients, which cancel each other out.

Once they tested each ingredient separately than they could start formulating a feed recipe. Julius says, “If we had the funds we would have the information we needed by now and would already be producing locally grown feed, but as it is now the trial has been dragged out the past 4 years and it could probably take several more.”

As it stands right now, Julius and Mike are the only ones doing this trial and it is completely self funded. When Julius applied for a grant he was told, “Sorry, we aren’t interested. Even if you are successful the country won’t benefit from it since it will only work in Hawaii.”

Julius did the math, if he grew all of the crops in order to make his own chicken feed he would lose money. “You’re better of selling what you grow”, he said with a defeated look.

It was then, that it really sunk in for me. Commercial feed exists for a reason and it is extremely difficult to change that reason.

Julius says, “We may have the same commercial feed that conventional farms use but since we are not a factory we handle everything by hand and produce a better quality product. It’s kinda cheesy to say but, we actually care. We know the chicks from the time we pick them up at the hatchery day old to harvesting them and taking them to the slaughterhouse. We know them intimately. There is a certain connection that we have that factory farms never will. When you put in the effort and care about what you are doing it shows in the final product.”

How you can support local farming

Julius encourages people to develop relationships with their farmers. “Get to know what they do and how they do it. Just because they are doing something different from what you think (or have heard) they should be, doesn’t mean that they aren’t putting out a good product or that it’s wrong. There is a good reason for what they do. Every farmer has their own quirks and special ways of doing things. In Hawaii there are so many microclimates that you have to adapt accordingly. You have to make it work where you’re at. One of the things that makes us not a factory farm is the fact that it can’t be replicated on another side of the island. You have to always observe and adjust according to your environment. Your farming practices and feed are changing constantly. You have to be quick because you could lose product. I never say what other farms should do, I just know what I need to do for my farm.”

Just the facts

J. Ludovico Farm has the only chicken slaughterhouse on the island. They encourage more farms on Oahu to raise chickens and partner with them. You grow the chickens and Julius will slaughter and processes them for you.

Some of the top restaurants in Honolulu have J. Ludovico Farm chicken on their menus. Pig and the lady, Piggy Smalls, Fete, Herringbone, Basalt, MW, and Chef Mavro are just a few of them.

You can find Julius every Wednesday at the Honolulu Farmer’s Market at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center from 4-7pm. 777 Ward Avenue Honolulu, HI 96814

Customers who are interested in purchasing one of Julius’s chickens are encouraged to pre-order them. Julius does not store any frozen product. He slaughters on demand, so what you order on Friday, gets slaughtered Tuesday to pick up at the market on Wednesday.

You can email your request to jludivicofarm@gmail.com the weekend before a Wednesday market. Whole chickens are $6/lb

For more information on what J. Ludovico Farm has to offer visit their website at https://jludovicofarm.com/shop/

You can also follow them on Instagram @jludavicofarm

When asked about farm tours Julius got very serious and said, “Sure, we are happy to give you a tour but you better be prepared to show up at 5am and work the farm with us all day.” The same goes for the slaughterhouse. They would more than appreciate volunteers on Tuesdays and Thursdays to come lend a hand. But a word of advice, if Julius tells you to move, you better get out of his way.

Are you excited about local farming on Oahu? Which farms are you proud to support? Tell us all about it in the comments section. And if you liked this article I invite you to subscribe to The Healthy Locavore for more on how to eat local, live well, cook healthier and support each other. I am so grateful for this community, thank you so much for being a part of it!

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Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and certified health coach whose writing centers around holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made food.