Final harvest signals end of era for Hawaii’s sugar industry

It’s the end of an era for Hawaii’s sugar industry, as the final sugar harvest in our state took place Monday morning in Puunene on Maui.

The sight of smoke billowing out of the mill’s stacks is a sight many island residents say they will miss. “Whenever you pass this area, it’s always bustling,” said Wailuku resident Alice Lee. “The steam coming out of the stacks, all of that will stop. It’s gonna be very, very sad.”

Earlier this year, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company announced it was ending its sugar operations and transitioning to a diversified agricultural model. Some of the future possibilities for the tens of thousands of acres of ag land include smaller farms, livestock and bio-energy crops.

The first sugar cane was planted on Maui 145 years ago, and in the mid-1990s, HC&S was the largest sugar producer in the country. But in recent years, it suffered large operating losses, prompting the company to pursue other farming projects.

At Monday’s last harvest, Gov. David Ige said “this day is a sad day. It marks an end of an era here in Hawaii, an era that truly created the modern Hawaii that we have here today.”

As for the workers — a total of 675 employees, of which about half that number was retained to the end — it was a bittersweet day, as no more sugar cane work is having a big impact on them.

While there were dignitaries, like the governor and a congressional contingent of Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa were in attendance, the real VIPs were the employees, both past and present.

In an emotional speech, plantation general manager Rick Volner said rarely has an industry shaped a culture like the sugar culture in Hawaii. He paid respects to the grandparents and great-grandparents, who left their homelands of Japan, the Philippines, China, and Portugal, to start a new life in Hawaii — like 88-year-old Silvestre Bagio, who spent 45 years of his life working the sugar cane crop.

“I was young boy when I came here,” he said. “I came from Philippine islands in 1946. I’m getting old, in this plantation. Just like my friend here.”

His friend and fellow retiree Costo Medella is 91 “but I’m still moving around to keep myself healthy.”

Of the 375 employees at Monday’s final harvest, most had their cellphones out, documenting the last crop of sugar cane.

Benjie Pascua felt emotional as he watched as a truck haul the last harvest of sugar cane. “It really does scare me,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s a scary thought.”

“I grew up here as a little kid. … There’s no snow on Maui, but to see all the black cane on your driveway, that felt like snow!”

“When workers would burn the cane, the ash would fly,” said Lee. “Of course, it was a nuisance … the day after, you wash your car. But that’s something we accepted as a way of life.”

It’s the end of an era says 89-year-old Teouo Ozai, who came to Monday’s ceremony alone, because after 44 years of working the fields, he couldn’t miss the last harvest.

“It’s hard to see the plantation go,” he said. “I guess it’s the way it goes. What can you do?”

maui-sugar-harvest-workers

The state Dept. of Agriculture says the end of sugar will change the state’s ag economy forever.

Director Scott Enright says the future for agriculture will be smaller and more diversified. He says the department is researching what crop will be economically viable for Hawaii farmers in a competitive market.

“We’re seeing an uptick in our tropical fruit production,” he said. “There is an amazing capacity to grow mangoes and citrus. With citrus greening on the mainland, that’s a real opportunity to jump in and grow it here.”

There’s also a high demand for fresh, locally grown leafy greens. But the number one crop in Hawaii is still seed corn.

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