Be careful what you wish for. Alexander & Baldwin just announced it will close down HC&S, the last sugar plantation in Hawai`i, over the next 12 months. This is not a big surprise. They say the main reason is that they lost $30 million last year, but there have been other pressures as well.
The heaviest pressure has been from opponents of cane burning. While I understand the health concerns around breathing any kind of smoke, I’ve been frustrated at the ignorance so many opponents have shown. Below are some of the questions that have bugged me, and the answers I’ve itched to give.
None of this even touches on how sad I feel about the final act in an era that some people remember with fondness. That’s another blog.
The questions and answers:
Why didn’t HC&S just stop burning and do green harvests?
They have been doing more green harvest in response to complaints, but not all their fields could handle the kind of equipment required for green harvesting. When I took the HC&S mill tour years ago, they told us they sometimes found rocks as big as Volkswagens (not to mention actual Volkswagens) hidden in the fields. That’ll play havoc with your cane-cutting equipment. And while cane may look only 6 feet tall, it falls to lie along the ground as it grows and the long stalks tangle with each other. You can’t mow it like a lawn.
Why don’t they grow hemp?
It’s illegal, at this point. And who knows if it would work. Leading to the next irritating question:
Why don’t they grow something else, anything but sugar?
Island agriculturalists, especially those at Hawai`i’s last cane plantation, have tried for decades to find alternatives. Agriculture is a complicated business. You can’t simply decide “let’s grow this” and expect to be a success, and if you can’t grow something at a profit, there’s no point in trying. Hawai`i history is full of attempts to grow a wide variety of crops, as documented in a wonderful old book called Hawaii’s Crop Parade. (You might find it in your library’s reserve section.)
Aside from all the technical issues in growing any kind of crop (whether in your backyard or for cash), in Hawai`i we pay our ag workers good wages, with good benefits. This has led to the failure of many a promising agricultural idea that could be realized more profitably in places where people earn slave wages. What will happen now to the hundreds of Maui families who depend on those world-class ag wages?
And any kind of ag is going to bug someone. People have nostalgic ideas about farm life, but it’s dusty (or muddy), sometimes stinky, sometimes noisy. There are some great small organic farms on Maui, but with 36,000 acres, it would be hard to farm without using artificial fertilizer and some sort of pesticides. I await the first complaints from supposedly pro-farming folks.
Who cares? Just let the cane die, and we’ll be fine.
That’s pretty much a desert out there on the central plain, and if they don’t grow something profitable, A&B will have no incentive to keep East Maui water flowing to the Central Valley. I’ve read accounts from the 1800s of dust clouds hundreds of feet high and sandstorms so thick a rider could not see the ears on her own horse. I live downwind, and I’d rather have occasional cane smoke.
So let’s hope the second part of the announcement, that HC&S is transitioning to a “diversified crop model,” will succeed. Despite the critics who claimed that the company refused to think about other options, I know that HC&S has been looking for years for alternatives to sugar. Let’s hope they’re successful with whatever they are about to attempt. If they are not we can expect a lot of dust and a lot of weed seeds, neither of which is particularly good for people with respiratory problems. And in the long run, those beautiful green fields could simply be covered with concrete and asphalt.
Now we have something new to wish for: that A&B has hit on a winning agricultural plan that will produce crops valuable enough to keep those fields green. I hope sugar’s critics will join me in that wish.