Farewell, Sugar. What Now, Maui?

Aloha to King Sugar: Hawai`i's last plantation closes down.

Aloha to King Sugar: Hawai`i’s last plantation closes down.

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.

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21 thoughts on “Farewell, Sugar. What Now, Maui?

  1. Dania

    Dear Jill.
    Thank you for your blog and sharing. There is no easy fix, no easy answer and one issue may lead to 20 issues. I wish for everyone involved to find meaningful employment and to be healthy. Coming together and bring our energy and ideas may be needed to save us all.

    • Jill

      After I posted this, I saw a longer statement from HC&S which sounded encouraging–they’re not going for another monocrop but are trying a bunch of different things, including an ag park where they’ll lease land to small farmers. Small is the answer to the multi-crop/sustainable/organic thing, I think. What’s that old saying–The best fertilizer is the sweat of the farmer? That probably works best with a smallholding, so that’s hopeful. Also some energy crop plans in the works. Maybe there will be a happy ending, but we all need to be patient and supportive.

  2. Very good, Jill. Expect to be slimed.

    I’ll be interested to see how EMI tries to preserve its leases. I don’t think it can. This wrecks Wailuku Water, too.

    Good news for the Hawaiians and supporter who want East Maui streams restored.

    • Jill

      I had a paragraph about the water situation and cut it because it deserves its own discussion, but it certainly is important. Upcountry’s domestic water depends on EMI, so if it goes down there will be some major adjusting to do.

      • And even if it doesn’t, without the revenue from HC&S the cost will soar. Expenses will rise 10-fold on a per-gallon basis.

        As for small farms, HC&S is big egough to create more 100-acre farms thanthere are in the whole state. Most of the land will go out of production.

        Energy crops are shibai. Remember the algae farm HC&S was going to be part of?

        • Jill

          Lots of prices will soar, like for farmers who depend on the economy of scale to buy supplies.
          Re: small farms, somewhere I have a clipping of a viewpoint Bill Pyle wrote years ago. He said the whole state could be fed with 40,000 acres, if I remember correctly. I’m hoping you’re wrong on energy crops, and I’m cheering for hemp as well. Time will tell.

  3. brent pellegrini

    I remember Guy Moen telling me that sugar was expensive on Maui because it was shipped to the mainland to be refined and then shipped back as sugar. Guy had a friend named Bill Pyle who was the water engineer for the cane company when I lived on Maui. I came away from him thinking the irrigation system there from the mountains was the 9th wonder of the world.

    • Jill

      The water system is indeed an engineering wonder. Unfortunately, it takes water that belongs to the public and leaves streams empty, which isn’t good for either the ecosystem or the people downstream. Another legacy system that somehow has to be updated to meet the needs of the 21st century!

  4. Chuck Page

    Jill I could not agree more. You really hit nail on head. Thanks for saying and publishing what seems obvious to me but not some folks.

    • Jill

      Thanks, Chuck.

  5. Tina Wildberger

    Opponents who see this as a small victory take offense to Jill’s accusation of ignorance. This is a chance for a new beginning for Maui. If A&B can muster vision and adopt Malama Aina practices, Maui has the potential to feed the state, rehabilitate 36,000 acres of long-poisoned soil and provide a multitude of agriculture job to people who want to farm. Time to retire the old, tired arguements about limited green harvest, etc. Now, we pivot to pesticides.

  6. Michelle Steuermann

    Excellent article. I am very saddened to see the demise of sugar in my lifetime. I grew up surrounded by waving green fields of sugarcane and tend to take sugarcane’s opponents comments almost as a personal affront. I would HATE to see more development. Diversified ag is a good thing.

  7. Linda Norrington

    I love the green cane fields and dread the potential of vast land “development”. Thanks for this piece and verbalizing the concerns.

    • Jill

      It certainly feels like a turning point. I hope things turn in the right direction.

  8. Laurie Keyhani

    Thank you. I have been well aware of the same issues for years. It’s amazing how the opponents have become like their own little Fox News network, spewing propaganda and opinions they call ‘facts’. thank you, again.

    • Jill

      Let’s hope things work out.

  9. […] Farewell Sugar, Now What, Maui? […]

  10. Judith

    The thing that strikes me is that these workers aren’t the ones who will end up behind a counter in Lahaina. Farming any crop is work men & women can be proud of. They feed us all and their paycheck feeds their families. When any mill closes that puts people out of work. Where will the workers go, what will they do in a world that only pretends to honor the contributions of people who work with their Backs and their hands. I hope other crops will be found so the fields of cane now bending to the wind won’t become new developments of condos and high end hotels. Space for growing things, where Maui’s mountains can still be seen in the distance, is something worth preserving. Been to Waikiki lately? Where is the ocean, where are the palm trees, where is the sky? All are visible from the balconies of hotels that charge $300 plus a night.

    • Jill

      Yes, lots of consequences will follow this change. We can only hope for the best for the workers and the island.

  11. Irene

    I can’t agree with you more! I went to a public meeting HC&S held. For ages I’d been reading letters to the Maui News that Hawaii’s the only place left on earth that burnt cane. Ha! HC&S brought in sugar experts from Australia & the mainland. Guess what? The only place that doesn’t burn cane has so much rain you get a huge crop anyway, and you’d be hard put to find a couple days dry enough to burn it. Mulching the leaves? Decomposition TAKES nitrogen before it’s beneficial. That process results in a 25% crop reduction. Raise vertical cane varieties so you can harvest mechanically? They take 2 years to mature, not 18 months. You’re looking at another 25% reduction in output. How would YOU cope with loss of 50% of YOUR income because your job’s churning out something people don’t like? The people who blame cane smoke for respiratory issues are gonna be SO disappointed – the additional dirt in the air is going to make up for it & then some. Plus at this same meeting, an air quality technician said that in nearly every home she’s been called to, “because cane smoke is making my kids sick”, she finds not particles from smoke, but MOLD SPORES in the air. The adults never want to hear that, though. Then there’s the vog. That’s not going away either & it’s probably the worst thing in our air these days. Grow hemp? Dream on! It’s just like the price of sugar here – it’s gonna have to be shipped off to be processed, and that shipping is gonna make Maui hemp too expensive compared to hemp grown nearly anywhere else. The comparatively paltry acreage now in cane isn’t going to make building factories economical, that’s for sure. Coffee can sort of make it, because people don’t mind paying a premium price for premium product, but the coffee growers I know also have other jobs. And look what happened to the mac nut farms – that was seen as another product people are willing to pay extra for, but the farms out toward Waihe’e are being built over, aren’t they? So that didn’t work out as planned, did it?

    • Jill

      Yes, it’s complicated. If it were easy to grow/process/ship/sell other crops, farmers would have been doing it already. Including HC&S. No business wants the kind of bad PR they have had; if there were an easier/cleaner way to grow cane profitably, they would have done it long ago.

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