The End of Maui Sugarcane

The Pu‘unēnē Mill has ceased production, along with 36,000 acres of sugarcane farming in Maui’s central valley and along the island’s north shore, ending about two centuries of commercial sugar in Hawai‘i. Maui’s very identity is teetering between crisis and opportunity.

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Farm Big? Or Farm Small?

The Maui County Farm Bureau embraces all of Maui County’s ag ventures, from small-scale organics to the biotech company Monsanto. Warren Watanabe, the bureau’s president, has a lifetime of experience in Maui food production and is quick to note that we have fewer farms than twenty years ago, and that the median age of Maui’s farmers is somewhere in the sixties. To create any semblance of economically significant agriculture, he feels, will require relatively large, monocropped farms, 100 to 1,000 acres, and the application of chemical fertilizers and “crop protection” — a euphemism for pesticides. These farms need to produce single crops “at a reasonable cost that people will buy. America is used to cheap agricultural products.” For Watanabe, the future requires a statewide vision. “You cannot focus on one island. You cannot have O‘ahu farmers competing with Big Island farmers.” And farmers have to focus on specialty crops, not general nutrition. “I’m sorry, but you’re not going to fill 27,000 acres with vegetables.”

By contrast, the Hawai‘i Farmers Union United believes in (quoting their website) “a multitude of smallholder diversified farms” that favor “eco-logical techniques.” James Simpliciano of Lahaina is president of one of HFUU’s three Maui chapters. He envisions a quilt of microfarms, each with a niche. “The future looks bright,” he says. “Buy local, eat as much local as possible . . . this changes your lifestyle and your health.” Though he’s not opposed to fertilizer, he says, “We must understand how the [pre-Contact] Hawaiians did. They never imported, and they fed a million people. We need to practice an indigenous way of farming — keep the soil healthy, do not till, keep the top seven inches alive. The [consumer] is in the movement now, as we have more and more farmers markets and food entrepreneurs.”

Uncertainty

Teena Rasmussen, director of the county’s Office of Economic Development, has been farming on Maui for thirty-five years. “You get really emotional about [sugar’s demise] if you’ve lived here all your life. People don’t know what that took, to last 140 years. I have nothing but respect for HC&S. Honestly, Maui will never be the same.”

She says, “We’ve been incredibly lucky — and we have a fabulous tourist industry. But it would be good to have a backup industry if it were to take a heavy hit. Now 70 percent of our jobs depend on tourism. That puts us in a very vulnerable place.”

Then she states the one sure thing: “Maui is in transition.”


Read past stories about Maui sugarcane industry: The Burning Question | Biofuel Battles
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2 COMMENTS

  1. I want to retain some of the old Hawaii. Sorry to see the sugar cane go away, looked forward to seeing the stacks smoking and sugar cane blowing in the wind. Too much development of too many units robs Hawaii of what makes Hawaii. The Island feel of things past and a people that ruled these Islands and kept them beautiful and treated it with respect. Over fishing, polluting the oceans with plastic and garbage, most people just don’t care, it’s very sad. Pineapple goes, sugar cane goes and soon Hawaii, Maui, will not be the beautiful Island it once was.

  2. HC&S will most likely go with selling the cane fields to wealthy land developers who will ruin the central valley and Northshore by putting new housing developments all over the area! (farming…? For real…?)
    The once quaint and quiet Northshore will have a highway put in to replace Hana Highway so that all the malahini can get to their “gated communities!” Maui County better pass some land development restrictions NOW, before big money corrupts the outcome of Maui’s precious resources and limited infrastructure…
    What would you rather have, the cane fields and the occasional “Hawaiian snow” or tons of mainlanders swooping in to buy their new vacation homes in a gated community near you…?

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