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Hawaii’s last sugar plantation will stop growing sugar cane this year, marking the end of an industry that strongly influenced Hawaii’s politics, economy and culture for more than a century.
Alexander & Baldwin, Inc. announced Wednesday that its 36,000-acre Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company plantation on Maui will phase out its sugar farming this year in favor of diversified agriculture.
A&B has been cultivating sugar cane on Maui since 1870, and the plantation covers more than 40 percent of its 88,000-acre Hawaii land holdings.
Executive Chairman Stanley Kuriyama said in a press release that the business was no longer sustainable and the company expected to incur a $30 million operating loss for 2015.
The announcement prompted a flood of press releases from Hawaii’s political leaders.
“This is a significant historic marker for Hawaii, the end of an era that touched the lives of generations of hardworking, local families,” Gov. David Ige said in a statement.
Along with pineapple, the sugar industry spurred tens of thousands of Asian immigrants to move to Hawaii to work on farms.
Sugar planters were among the American businessmen who overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 with the backing of the U.S. military.
“A&B’s roots literally began with the planting of sugar cane on 570 acres in Makawao, Maui, 145 years ago,” said Kuriyama. “Much of the state’s population would not be in Hawaii today, myself included, if our grandparents or great-grandparents had not had the opportunity to work on the sugar plantations.”
About half of the 675-person workforce is expected to get laid off sometime from March to November. The rest will be terminated after the harvest is complete in December.
Based on preliminary unemployment data from last November, the job loss could boost Maui’s unemployment rate from 3.2 percent to 4 percent.
But the transition from sugar to diversified agriculture is good news to critics who have been concerned about the environmental impact of sugar farming.
HC&S has been under increasing scrutiny in recent years because of the air pollution caused by cane burning, its use of pesticides and the diversion of streams in East Maui.
Ige said A&B’s decision to pursue diversified agriculture is “a golden opportunity for the state to focus on renewable energy and food security.”
The governor said the state will work with displaced workers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to help connect them with unemployment assistance, training and jobs.
Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations spokesman Bill Kunstman said the agency is drawing upon federal funding to deploy rapid response teams that will help provide workers with information ranging from job retraining opportunities to mental health resources.
There likely aren’t enough jobs in agriculture on Maui to absorb those who will be laid off, said Department of Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright.
“I don’t see any other outlets for that ag labor currently on Maui,” Enright told Civil Beat. “The ag labor force — at least in the interim — would probably land in the hospitality industry.”
Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa said in a statement that he has assigned Managing Director Keith Regan to work with HC&S to see how the county can help displaced workers.
“The sugar industry in Hawaii first began on Maui so it is only right that it ends here as well,” said Arakawa. “Our hearts go out to the workers whose jobs will be affected by this transition. We hope that they can be absorbed back into the workforce without delay and the county will assist in any way we can.”
Alexander & Baldwin said it plans to offer severance packages and provide transition coordinators who will help workers find other jobs and resources. The details of the severance packages are not available because they depend on union negotiations, the company said.
Eventually, it intends to consider employees who are laid off for jobs in its new farming operations.
That may include growing “energy crops, agroforestry, grass-finished livestock operations, diversified food crops, and orchard crops, among others,” according to the press release.
HC&S has been growing sorghum and other crops that can produce biogas, and plans to explore cattle ranching this year. The company also said it wants to establish an “agriculture park” where farmers can lease land to grow their own crops, with preference givento former HC&S employees.
Enright said that there’s potential to grow crops like mangoes and avocados on a large scale.
“There’s a real need for mangoes in the state … and it’s something we should be growing,” he said.
The announcement that HC&S is abandoning sugar comes just months after a Maui group called Stop Cane Burning filed a lawsuit asking the state Department of Health to invalidate the company’s permit that allows it to burn sugar cane.
The group raised more than $25,000 through online donations to fund the lawsuit, which was prompted by residents’ complaints about health problems associated with cane burning.
In a press release, the group’s spokeswoman, Karen Chun, said Wednesday that she’s happy the company is transitioning to diversified agriculture but that the lawsuit will continue.
“We were unable to come to a court enforceable agreement during settlement discussions,” she said. “Without that, A&B can always reverse course. Only a court order can fully protect the public’s right to clean air.”
A Maui cane burning study released in October found that the burning of more than 100 acres is linked to acute respiratory illness.
HC&S generally burns about 400 acres of sugar cane weekly from March to November.
Cane burning was one of many factors in the decision to stop growing sugar cane, A&B CEO Christopher Benjamin said in an emailed statement to Civil Beat.
“There is no single factor that determines the viability of such a complex operation as HC&S. We have had our share of challenges from sugar prices, water, energy prices, weather, as well as cane burning, and many factors played a role in this difficult decision,” Benjamin said.
The company has also spent more than a decade fighting Native Hawaiians who contend stream diversions in East Maui prevent them from engaging in certain cultural practices.
Alan Murakami is an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., a nonprofit that is in the middle of two contested case proceedings at the state Water Commission and Board of Land and Natural Resources challenging HC&S water use in East Maui.
Murakami, who said the nonprofit is awaiting a hearings officer’s decision in its Water Commission case, said he believes the shift away from sugar cane will impact the case.
“The question is how much,” he said. “There’s clearly nothing more thirsty than sugar cane.”
In his statement, Benjamin did not say whether the shift means fewer streams will be diverted.
“If there is to be continued agriculture on HC&S lands, water will still be essential. No farmer will risk planting any crop, without knowing whether there is sufficient water to cultivate a healthy crop,” Benjamin said. “We recognize that stream water should be used in the best interest of the community, and we hope that our diversified ag model will have the support of the community as we strive to keep the central plain of Maui in agriculture.”