Heritage Crops

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Maui pineapple workers
Taken in the 1950s, the author’s grandparents Matsuzo (left) and Umeto Yogi (right). The Yogis worked in the company’s pineapple fields in upper Ha‘ikū. The boys, Yamakawa brothers, were family friends.

New Maui Gold president Joe LeVecke confirms his family’s commitment to Maui’s famous fruit. PAU Maui Vodka is the LeVecke Corp’s flagship brand, and it is the only pineapple-based vodka in the world, so acquiring Maui Gold just plain made sense. “At first it was a matter of self-preservation,” says LeVecke. “Then we learned what pineapple means to this island. It’s not just a fruit; it has a history, a spirit. [The purchase] is a good business opportunity, but stewardship—that’s what we’re excited about.”

Hali‘imaile Distillers is not the only enterprise with a stake in the future of Maui pineapple. Maui Crisps (dried fruit), Maui Fruit Jewels (jelly candies), Maui Preserves, and Ulupalakua Vineyards’ MauiWine all use Maui Gold in their products. Fresh-cut chunks and slices are served in island hotels and restaurants.

There’s a reason Maui-grown pineapple wears the crown among the island’s agricultural ventures, and it’s not just a matter of local pride. Balala says the volcanic soil and upcountry climate, with hot days and cold nights, are perfectly suited for growing pineapple. He should know; pineapple has been his life’s work since he signed on as a teenage field worker in 1979.

With Balala’s experience and knowledge, and input from other farming experts, LeVecke hopes to maintain the quality Maui Gold is known for, while improving yield and focusing on the local market. “Maui first,” he says, stressing his company’s commitment not just to supplying consumers, but to preserving the ‘āina (land) and culture. Toward that goal, LeVecke has retained his good friend and respected authority Kainoa Horcajo as the company’s cultural advisor. Community outreach and involvement are also part of the business plan.

“We’re trying to be pono [correct, proper]. If you do things the right way, with respect for the ancestry and history of the islands, you are welcomed. If we can be one small part of a resurgence of agriculture in the islands, then we’ve done our part.”

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