I was raised on a Molokai pineapple plantation, which some might disparagingly call an industrial agriculture operation.

I can remember cruising the pineapple field roads on foot or on my old green bike, chewing on the crunchy, white pineapple leaf bases, and eating the early-ripening pineapples at the edges of the field for lunch.

I remember camping at the plantation-built beach park at Halena, collecting old bottles at abandoned plantation camps, using plantation roads to get access to Kolo and Kawakiu and Ka`ana.

Workers toil at Alexander & Baldwin's sugar plantation on Maui.
A sugar cane harvest of yesteryear at Alexander & Baldwin’s sugar plantation on Maui. (Courtesy of Alexander & Baldwin)

My older friends raised on sugar plantations tell about riding the sugar cane trains to get to the beach on weekends, of being given a handful of raw sugar at the mill, or recall the sweet taste when you bite down on a peeled stalk of cane.

The ag we grew up with didn’t seem so industrial, but of course it was. So, it is both sad and disheartening to read people writing snidely about industrial agriculture and demanding it be driven away.

“Cane” and “pine” covered vast areas on most islands, were among the most mechanized agricultural ventures in the world, and they employed thousands of workers. They were the key economic engine of the last century in Hawaii.

Good or bad, they brought the islands the ethnic mix we have today. Their union wages let a lot of people build their own homes and send their kids to good schools. The plantations built hospitals. They built towns. They supported small businesses throughout our archipelago.

Some folks these days think about plantations and only think about the chemicals they used or the smoke that spread from the burning fields, but these industrial agricultural ventures were far more than that. Among other things, they were amazingly diverse employers.

There were jobs for carpenters and masons and ditchmen and secretaries, mechanics and dynamite men and bookkeepers and heavy equipment operators. Truck drivers and chemists and researchers and doctors. Lab techs and accountants and personnel managers and surveyors. Hoe-hana crews and mule trainers and welders and, in pine fields, male and female harvesting crews. And on and on.

There were certainly incidents of ugly paternalism in the plantation era, but most people who were there seem to remember cane and pine days sentimentally, and fondly. I talked to a lot of them in the process of researching two of my books, “Lihue Mill, Grinding Cane and Building Community,” and “Grove Farm, Kaua`i: 150 Years of Stewardship and Innovation.”

It is maddening for many of us from the plantation era to hear people cheering the demise of our islands’ last sugar plantation on Maui.

This mean-spiritedness — celebrating someone else’s misfortune — seems new in Hawaii, although it’s certainly not new to the world. There’s even a foreign word for it: schadenfreude, getting pleasure from someone else’s pain.

Some folks these days think about plantations and only think about the chemicals they used or the smoke that spread from the burning fields, but these industrial agricultural ventures were far more than that.

We have a circular meme in our state, in which we all blame things on “outsiders.” Both sides of the industrial ag debate do it.

A recent Civil Beat piece refers to “industrial” seed companies as outsiders exploiting the land. Remember when it was resort development that prompted that kind of talk?

At  the same time, longtime residents decry “outsiders” who have recently arrived in the islands, and who now cheer the death of the agricultural traditions of the very islands they’ve adopted.

There is plenty of room in the islands for far more small farms, including small family-run organic farms, growing local food. Only a fraction of the available agricultural land is used by the large, often corporate, farms that provide us with export products — macnuts, papaya, seed crops, coffee and the rest.

The demise of “cane” and “pine” has made available tens of thousands of acres of underused agricultural land, some with legacy irrigation systems still in place from the sugar industry.

We don’t need to reject industrial agriculture to promote small scale or organic farming. Indeed, we need both — local food crops and export products.

If you want tomatoes, you don’t have to talk stink about carrots. Just plant tomatoes.

Our world is complex. Us-versus-them arguments can conceal the truth that often,  there’s nothing wrong with us-and-them.

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About the Author

  • Jan TenBruggencate
    Jan TenBruggencate was the science and environment writer and Kauai Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Advertiser. He left to start a communications consulting firm, Island Strategy LLC. His science writing has generated awards from the Hawaii Audubon Society, Hawaiian Academy of Science, The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Council for Hawaii and others.