It turns out I was wrong. In a blog post I wrote last year after HC&S announced the closing of its Maui sugar plantation, I warned of increased dust from the abandoned fields. As it happens, I had moved to a place windward of the central valley fields a couple of years before this big change, so I was quite familiar with the annoying dust problem in Kihei.
I figured the Central Maui plain would revert to pretty much a desert, and the dust problem would only grow worse. I based this prediction on historical references—from the writer who watched from Waikapu as giant dust clouds advanced over the central plain, and from Isabella Bird, the intrepid lady traveler who described being unable to see her horse’s ears as she crossed the plain.
I’m happy to say my prediction was wrong, at least as far as I can tell. My place has had less dust than it did before cane ended. I have a few ideas about why my earlier opinion was incorrect.
First, nature cooperated; we had a nice rainy winter last year, which helped the ratoon crop that sprang up after the last harvests. In addition, HC&S irrigated to prevent the dust problem, a situation one employee told me felt like they were shooting themselves in the foot, since so many people had doubted the company’s warning that stopping cane cultivation would result in more dust. Though watering to prevent dust would invalidate their own warning, the company did irrigate, because farmers never want to lose top soil.
The second-growth cane that came up is sparse, but interspersed with it are assorted plants, some weeds and grass and some long-forgotten ground covers HC&S planted decades ago.
The company has been mowing the ratoon crop before it has a chance to get tall and create a tangled mess. Undisturbed, the roots of this ratoon crop and all those weeds/ground covers are holding down the soil, something obviously of value to any farmer and to those of us who live downwind as well.
Another possible reason I was wrong occurred to me only recently. Maybe the terrible dust back in the 1800s resulted from invasive cattle destroying the landscape. Marauding herds ran wild in those days. I bet some of them were chewing their way through whatever vegetation covered the ground in the Central Maui plain, leaving bare dirt to blow in the trade winds.
Yet another reason we’re seeing less dust could be simply that no one is actively farming. Without the bare land between harvest and the growth of the next crop, the trade winds have fewer opportunities to pick up dirt. Cane was a long-term crop, so that period of bare ground was relatively small compared to the amount of time the soil was covered by plants. As new agricultural projects begin, it will be interesting to see what happens with crops whose growth cycles are considerably shorter than that of sugar cane.