Maui Says Aloha to Island’s Last Sugar Cane Producer

The smoke from the stacks in this picture and green from the cane fields have been a part of daily life and the view of residents and so many visitors when landing at the airport. Photo courtesy of Chris Archer

(CN) – Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company hosted a bittersweet ceremony earlier this week marking the end of 145 years of harvesting and processing sugar cane on Maui.

Company managers, federal, state and island dignitaries, and hundreds of past and present employees gathered in front of what was not only the last hauler of sugar cane to be harvested and processed on Maui, but the last one in the Hawaiian Islands.

At the start of 2016, HC&S employed 675 people, many having spent 30 to 40 years with the company and representing fifth and sixth generations working in Hawaii’s sugar industry. By Wednesday, the last shipment of sugar, about 30,000 tons, left for the U.S. mainland and only 15 employees remain to finish shutting down the mill and auctioning equipment.

In its heyday in the 1930s, the industry employed 50,000 individuals across the islands and produced 20 percent of all sugar consumed in the United States. Numbers declined significantly after the 1970s, as the industry became more automated and tourism surpassed sugar as the top economic force. In 2000, four sugar mills remained and by 2011, the Maui mill was the only one left operating.

Nearly a year ago, Alexander & Baldwin, the Hawaii-based real estate, agribusiness and construction company – and owners of HC&S – announced a shutdown by year-end.

“We have made every effort to avoid having to take this action,” said Alexander & Baldwin executive chairman Stanley Kuriyama. “A&B has demonstrated incredible support for HC&S over these many years, keeping our operation running for 16 years after the last sugar company on Maui closed its doors.”

Kuriyama’s statement cited several years of drought, competition from other producers around the world, legal fights over water rights and air quality during the annual burning of cane fields, and a $30 million agribusiness loss in 2015 as the reason the state’s fourth largest private landowner is transitioning the 36,000-acre sugar plantation to a “diversified agricultural model.”

At the time of the closure announcement, company leadership promised Maui officials they would make every effort to keep the land in agriculture rather than subdivide for luxury residences as has happened in many other parts of the island. The plan is to divide the acreage into smaller farms with a variety of agricultural uses, including energy and food crops and support for the local cattle industry, according to public statements by HC&S and Alexander & Baldwin.

“A&B’s roots literally began with the planting of sugar cane on 570 acres in Makawao, Maui, 145 years ago. Much of the state’s population would not be in Hawaii today, myself included, if our grandparents or great-grandparents had not had the opportunity to work on the sugar plantations,” Kuriyama said.

Hawaii’s governor echoed those sentiments in statements after the initial announcement and again when he met with employees prior to the last harvest ceremony.

“This is a significant historic marker for Hawaii, the end of an era that touched the lives of generations of hardworking local families.” Gov. David Ige said. “An era that truly created the modern Hawaii that we have here today.”

Sugar cane cultivation was brought to Hawaii’s shores by the early Polynesians, and by the mid-1800s had expanded into a commercial crop. As the industry grew so did the need for laborers, and an influx of immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal and Philippines came to work the plantations.

President and CEO of Alexander & Baldwin Chris Benjamin repeatedly, as did every speaker, referred to the influence of the industry on generations of island residents and the residents on the evolution of Hawaii’s culture.

“Rarely has an industry so shaped and influenced a place and helped create a culture, a fabulous, blended, multi-ethnic culture as the sugar industry did in Hawaii,” Benjamin said. “The harmonious melting pot we enjoy in Hawaii is the perfect counter to the divisiveness and isolationism that much of the country sadly is embracing.”

Donna Domingo, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, noted sugar’s importance in the lives of Hawaiians.

“For almost 200 years, sugar was king in these islands, making major contributions to Hawaii’s economy, but many have said that perhaps its most significant contribution has been to Hawaii’s people,” she said. “Many of us would not be here today if not for sugar.”

Following the remarks, Benjamin invited the guests to observe the unloading of sugar cane into the mill for processing. U.S. Senators from Hawaii Mazie K. Hirono and Brian Schatz were both on hand for the event.

The senators secured federal assistance from the U.S. Department of Labor for all displaced sugar company employees, covering lost wages and job training expenses. Company representatives said 140 workers had already gone on to new jobs and that some would be offered positions as they come available under the new agricultural model.

“We are very focused on helping our employees during this time,” Benjamin said. “Many of our employees have dedicated their careers to HC&S and have followed in the footsteps of previous generations of family members that worked on the plantation. We are grateful for their years of service and we will support them through this transition period.”

The ceremony was broadcast live on MauiNow.com

In 2015, only four states produced sugar cane. Hawaii ranked a distant third after top producers Florida and Louisiana, with Texas in fourth, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.