Bittersweet End to Cane Plantation Days

Jan 6, 2016

Credit Flickr / Averain

Hawai‘i’s last sugar plantation is closing. Alexander and Baldwin announced Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company on Maui will stop producing sugar by the end of the year. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports...

Once upon a time in Hawai‘i, sugar was king. The industry powered politics, wealth, and helped form the identity of the Aloha State’s population. The closing of the sugar operations of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company signifies the end of an era.

Credit Flickr / Jennifer Cachola

“It is very sad to think that at the end of 2016, large scale sugar production in Hawai‘i will have finally come to an end,” said Rick Volner, the plantation general manager at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company. Its parent company Alexander and Baldwin started sugar production on Maui 145 years ago. Volner said the company had been financially struggling for years, reporting agricultural losses of $30 million last year. Half of the 675 employees will be laid off beginning in March. The rest will continue working through this year's sugar harvest, with most likely let go after December. “We just were unable to sustain the losses we’ve had over the last two years,” said Volner. “And more importantly, we don’t see that changing in the near future.”

Instead the company will focus on diversified agriculture, including energy crops used for bio diesel and possibly irrigated pastureland for cattle.

Credit Alexander & Baldwin

A century ago, it would have been hard to imagine that sugar would fall on hard times. “Sugar and pineapple were the absolute mainstays of how our economy functioned,” said Bishop Museum historian Desoto Brown. He explained that sugar in particular took off after the reciprocity treaty was issued in 1876. “The United States removed tariffs on sugar from the nation of the Hawaiian Island being imported into the U.S.,” said Brown. “That meant the sugar was cheaper to sell there and it meant the sugar industry here boomed tremendously.”

Many of those sugar barons were among American businessmenn behind the eventual overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. "The people who were responsible for the overthrow in the first place were in large part influenced by the growing of sugarcane." Brown says it displayed "the huge political power and economic power that the sugar industry and the men who ran it had."

Credit Library of Congress

The industry not only drew wealthy landowners to the islands, it also brought immigrants from Asia, and shaped the diverse population now present in Hawai‘i. “If it wasn’t for sugar there’d be a totally different world here,” said Roslyn Lightfoot, the director of the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum in Pu‘unēnē, Maui. “All the migrants that came here wouldn’t have come to Hawai‘i if it wasn’t for the plantations. It would be a whole different island.”

And it’s not just ancient history, said the Bishop Museum’s Desoto Brown. For anyone driving around agricultural lands, even in the recent past, the view of a sugar plantation told a much broader story. “You saw the plantation houses, the plantation communities, the sugar mill, the burning of the cane fields,” said Brown. “Even if you didn’t work in the sugar industry, you saw all that stuff. You were aware of it, you read about it in the newspaper. You just knew that the price of sugar was something important that affected all of us.”

And now something that will be part of the past.