In 2014 Brandon Lee, a Hawaii Island restaurateur who is scared of horses and had spent his early professional life marketing luxury cars and hotels, applied for the Kamehameha Schools' Mahiai Match-Up, which awards cash grants and rent-free acreage to agricultural start-ups.
His idea to raise heritage pigs on the island took second place, and then Lee, who had never farmed or raised livestock before, had to learn everything there was to know about raising pigs -- fast.
"I was unprepared for all of it," Lee said. "You have to be tenacious and constantly trying to learn. I read online, I watched YouTube videos and I read pamphlets -- anything I could find about raising pigs. When I was growing up I didn't do any farming. I was more of a surfer kid, and I was horrible at even remembering to feed my dog."
Six Berkshire piglets were flown in from Santa Clara, Calif., and Kaunamano Farm
was born. Lee was immediately in the slop, having failed to erect enough fencing in time to get the animals properly penned. Soon he was handling his first birth, elbow-deep in the sow's womb helping to pull out the last piglets in the litter.
"I thought there was one stuck in there and I called the vet," Lee recalled. "Well, I don't think she was very comfortable with the situation or hadn't dealt with it before, because she only went a little ways in and said she didn't feel anything. She leaves, and I try again. ... I ended up pulling out three more pigs."
He also learned by visiting pig farms on the U.S. mainland, and today, with the help of two farmhands including a graduate student of ecology from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Lee raises the herd himself.
The original batch of a half-dozen pigs has grown to a group of 60. The farm supplies the restaurant Lee runs with his brother-in-law and chef Keoni Regidor, Napua Restaurant at the Mauna Lani Beach Club
, where the pork shows up in items like sausages, hot dogs, holiday hams, prosciutto and more.
The pigs feast on a diet of sweet potatoes and macadamia nuts, and although they've got a "good thing" going, Lee said he's always experimenting. The pigs are raised organically and sustainably, including using a solar-powered water pump to bring water to the animals and chickens to eat bugs and pests.
The high-end pork has drawn attention, with Kaunamano Farm serving as a stop on the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival's Connoisseur's Culinary Journey food tour this year. Lee is not yet formally set up for tours, but he is already showing around small groups and welcomes those who contact the farm ahead of time.
"We have plans to start official farm tours in the near future," he said. "It's such a beautiful place, I definitely want to show it off."