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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017


Bittersweet Harvest 
Story By: Paul Wood
Photos By: Dana Edmunds

“We’ve been spoiled with sugar,” says Rick Volner, general manager of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company. We’re in his pickup bouncing like cowboys along vacant cane-haul roads. The usual dry winds are blasting from the north across Maui’s central valley. The sky is bare and hot. The roads are bony with boulders. Yet we are surrounded by the happiest plants imaginable—sugar cane, rude and scratchy, packed thickly in towering stands. In fact, we are in the middle of Maui’s “lawn,” the uniformly green plain that visitors ooh about when their jets descend for a Kahului landing. What seems soft and fluffy from the air feels fierce on the ground. “It’s hard to imagine any other crop that would thrive in these conditions,” says Volner. The wind would shred bean leaves and lift lettuce right out of the ground. Now though, after 134 years of HC&S sugar production, other crops will have to be found. 

For eighteen years Volner’s job involved growing cane on thirty-six thousand acres of central Maui. Now his job is to make it stop. He used to keep the Pu‘unene Mill going twenty-four/seven from March to November, producing some 180,000 tons of raw sugar and almost 200,000 megawatt hours of electricity each year. Now he has to gut the mill and, as humanely as possible, fire some seven hundred people. As 2016 ends, so will the long history of sugar farming, not only on Maui but in the Hawaiian Islands.

This long history is longer than you might suppose. Sugar cane, or ko in Hawaiian, is a “canoe plant,” brought to the Islands by Polynesians on voyaging canoes at least thirteen centuries ago. Native Hawaiian planters would typically maintain a patch of ko on the perimeter of their farm plots. They recognized some two dozen varieties and used the juice in food and as medicine, the leaves for thatch and the plumelike flowers in many ways.

Commercial sugar-making came to the Islands via a Chinese man who arrived on a sandalwood trading ship. He brought a stone mill for crushing the cane, a boiler for concentrating the juice and set up on Lana‘i. He ground one crop, then returned home. But the cane race had begun. Maui’s first sugar operations, perhaps also the first in the Islands, began in Wailuku and in Waikapu during the 1820s. The first export of Hawaiian sugar and molasses came out of Koloa, Kaua‘i, in 1837. The American Civil War also encouraged Island growers, as the North was deprived of access to sugar from the Southern states. Then in 1874, King David Kalakaua traveled to Washington, DC and helped persuade the US government to enact the Reciprocity Treaty, allowing Island sugar growers to sell their product duty-free. Boomtime ensued.

The sugar boom brought both disruptive and enduring changes to the Islands. Growth of the thirsty crop sparked an effort to gain control of the Islands’ most precious resource: fresh water. For HC&S, that need was met by the 1878 Hamakua Ditch system, constructed by Chinese workers laboring under harsh conditions. An expanded network of such ditches, under the name East Maui Irrigation Company, still diverts water from windward Haleakala to Maui’s central plain. The continuing control of this water by HC&S’ parent company, Alexander & Baldwin, will certainly be contested in court long after the demise of sugar cane production. 

But sugar brought an even more profound change to the island kingdom. With growing profits came growing power—and the desire for more of both. Hawai‘i’s sugar bosses, working in concert and with support from the US Marines, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. To be fair, the leading figure at HC&S, Henry Perrine Baldwin, was a philanthropist who spoke Hawaiian and argued for retaining a constitutional monarchy, but the industry as a whole bears great responsibility for the end of the Hawaiian nation.

Both water and Native Hawaiian sovereignty remain flashpoints today, a century and a half later. The legacy of the sugar boom—and bust—can be seen not just in the culture, but haunting the landscape. If you poke around rural Maui today—Lahaina, ‘Ulupalakua, Kahikinui, Hana, Wailuku, Makawao—you’ll find the ruins of sugar mills almost everywhere you go.

The last of them is Pu‘unene Mill. I am here in July visiting the HC&S operation and writing in the present tense, but I am naggingly aware that what I’m describing will, for the readers of this story, be a thing of the past.

Joggling around in the GM’s truck shakes my mind out of a few ruts, one of them being my habituated blindness to the physical scale of the cane lands. When you spend your life driving around something this big you lose a sense of its dimension. But when you get into the fields, you feel like a stand up paddler in the middle of an enormous green lake. You’re smack between Maui’s two volcanoes, and the tall grass runs from foothills to foothills—also from shore to shore.

This lakelike wholeness, interrupted by a few public roads, has enabled this plantation to stay in operation years longer than all others in Hawai‘i. Its proximity to Maui’s commercial harbor has helped, too. This continuity of the farm has allowed HC&S to stay off the public highways and avoid the cost of moving its harvests in road-legal trucks. Instead, using its network of private roads, HC&S has been hauling with gigantic modified Tournahaulers that carry up to seventy tons of field-burned cane and debris with every trip. The total acreage of this last and greatest Maui plantation, pretty much an island within the island, is considerably bigger than the city of San Francisco and way more than double the area of Manhattan.

The sugar company’s centrality to the island is more than geographic. Case in point: As we ramble through cane, cane, cane, it’s hard to distinguish one field from another. But Volner points out areas named for vanished neighborhoods—Spanish Camp, Russian Camp, Alabama Camp, Haole Camp—ethnically clustered housing for contract workers. Though the names remain, almost all the old structures have been plowed under, and the descendants of former residents now constitute a large part of Maui’s population.

We drive past two defunct churches, one Catholic and one Congregational, the church to which most Island Christians, Native Hawaiians included, belonged. The old meat market back near the mill has been preserved with some of its original signage. Its temperature-controlled interior now makes it a good environment for the company’s computer technicians. The entire HC&S operation is computerized: Banks of monitors watch every aspect of the mill, and Mike Jensen, the mobile equipment manager, can track the doings in the fields via laptop from his office in the tractor shed. “Our machines are high-tech,” he says. “There are six to eight computers in each one.”

Jensen and his mechanics are responsible for nearly 650 pieces of equipment, from pickup trucks to stationary generators, “everything that moves and runs the plantation,” he says. He grins as he talks about the unique equipment modifications that the company has devised, for example replacing the bucket on a dinosaur-sized John Deere excavator with a “crane grab” big enough to lift tons of burnt cane in a single bite. Larry Lambert, a retired HC&S field engineering technician, described to me how his team repurposed Caterpillar D8 tractors into all-terrain planting devices. When the Caterpillar reps saw one of these creations, they said, “We don’t even recognize it, you’ve altered it so much.”

This work happens behind the curtain of cane. Probably very few outsiders realize that HC&S has served the community as a de facto trade school for journeyman-level skills—internal combustion engine mechanics, welders, electricians—second in the state only to the Pearl Harbor naval base. “We’ll bring people in, some with little experience, and put them through a four-to-five-year program, monitor their grades, give them on-the-job training, and they end up certified with the State of Hawai‘i,” says Jensen. Because so many trained employees have stayed for decades, he adds, “the investment has paid off.” And many laid-off workers will leave the company with marketable skills.

This history of innovation and mechanization has enabled Maui to stay in the sugar business longer than many imagined it would. Pioneer Mill on Maui’s West Side closed in 1999. The next year, HC&S mothballed its mill in Pa‘ia, leaving Pu‘u-nene, with its two stacks chugging, as the last mill anywhere in the state. Official reactions to sugar’s demise, from the governor on down, have included the word “sad” but not the word “surprised.” Nine countries, including some of the world’s largest, now outcompete the US in sugar production. The executive chairman of A&B, Stanley M. Kuriyama, stated that the “roughly $30 million agribusiness operating loss we expect to incur in 2015, and the forecast for continued losses, clearly are not sustainable, and we must now move forward with a new concept for our lands that allows us to keep them in productive agricultural use.” With that, Hawai‘i sugar finally threw in the towel.

But the most enduring legacy of HC&S will probably not be its ingenuity, nor its aggressive capture of fresh water from windward Haleakala. The enduring legacy derives from those vanished plantation camps. The company’s enthusiasm for recruiting and housing contract-bound laborers rather inadvertently created “local people.” I use that term in the common, conversational way to label many of Maui’s residents today. It means that these people’s great-grandparents or grandparents traveled here to work for HC&S (or other plantations) and lived side by side in the camps. Most Island residents know the list of nationalities—Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino—but maybe don’t know about the South Seas islanders; their immigration was encouraged by King Kalakaua, who fretted over the dwindling of the Polynesian race. Or the Norwegians (1881). Or the Galicians (1897). Or blacks from the southern United States (1900). The camps were, in effect, a century-long experiment that involved growing a new culture in the petri dish of Maui cane.

Out of that experiment came a new language, Hawaiian Creole English, known locally as pidgin. The language is soaked with Hawaiian words, inflections and grammatical patterns. Sometimes you’ll hear it said that the Hawaiians didn’t work in the sugar fields. That’s not true. In 1850 at Ha‘iku Mill, the forebear of HC&S, the “largest portion of the plantation workforce was Hawaiian—both men and women,” writes Carol A. MacLennan in The Hawaiian Journal of History. Many were lunas, or bosses, overseeing crews of mostly Chinese laborers. (“Luna” is a Hawaiian word.) But Hawaiians didn’t want to work nonstop like slaves. They would show up in self-organized work crews wanting short-term contracts and naming their own terms. The plantations could get a better deal with the camp system, where foreign workers rose six days a week to the blast of a steam whistle at 4:30 a.m. As Native Hawaiians transitioned to a cash economy during the mid-nineteenth century and left their traditional settlements, they tended to move to the plantation verges (just as most people on Maui do today, in fact). The historical records show that pidgin English and local culture grew in a Hawaiian matrix.

Linda Lindsay, who is Filipino and Portuguese, was among the very last residents of H’poko (short for Hamakuapoko) Camp, which once sprawled in the flatlands east of present-day Pa‘ia. During the 1920s and ‘30s this greater Pa‘ia area was the busiest, most populous town on Maui. Today most of that area consists of towering grass and the elegant skeleton of the original Maui High School. In 1937 the plantation began its transition from hand labor and hauling via railroad lines to truck-based mechanization. To entice residents out of the camps rather than just evict them, A&B began expanding Kahului into the city it is today, constructing suburban streets with houses on lots that their displaced workers could afford. Lindsay was born in 1948 in the Pa‘ia Hospital—gone now and marked with a plaque—and lived in the dwindling camp till age 12. “It was such a free time,” she tells me, describing a simple life of catching pollywogs in the pond, foot-racing while rolling bicycle tires, thrilling to the sight of flames when the fields were torched to burn off the leaves pre-harvest. The community was close, as were the houses. “We took care of each other,” she says. “As a kid I thought that was normal.”

And yet the camp was designed to divide the races—Japanese here, Portuguese there. “I never noticed this till later,” says Lindsay. “Racial distinctions never dawned on me. We all went to school together. We called each other by our racial names. We don’t do that anymore—but my dad still does! This was never racist, though. It was kind of jovial.”

The sight of the harvest, circa 2016, is gorgeous, graceful and strangely boring. Instead of crowds of women and men wielding cane knives as in the old photographs, you have three machines straight out of the Terminator movies, each with a human enclosed in it somewhere. The masses of cane stalks have already been scorched free of their leaves and pushed into windrows, so much of the soil is bare, flat and brown-red. The slightly scorched canes, some still smoking, emit a pleasant barbecued—crème brulée smell. A “brooming tractor” works around the edges, raking loose canes back into the windrows. The two main players, though, are the crane grab and the Tournahauler; the crane grab lifts masses of cane, rock and debris thirty feet high, cascades of soil falling, and drops them into the Tournahauler, which is essentially a giant wheel-barrow. The West Maui ridges tower in the background. In the foreground wobbly-necked egrets provide slapstick comic relief as they hunt centipedes right beneath the wheels.

“I’m amazed they don’t get run over,” says Mark Lopes. He has brought me out here to watch the field equipments’ jerky ballet, parking his truck upwind of the action. Of course. Mark knows which way the wind blows. For thirty-four years he has been the HC&S harvesting manager, which means that he calls the shots on the where and how of the field-burns. These fires flare and die like crumpled paper dropped on hot coals, but they have to be calculated with regard to natural conditions. Lopes works six days a week at all hours and stays by the phone on Sundays. Right now he’s watching the harvest with genuine admiration. “That’s something unique you won’t see anywhere else.”

He’s a big man with a wry sense of humor. His grandparents came from Portugal, he tells me, and we start talking about what that trip must have been like—more than half a year on a sailing ship going halfway around the globe—and he says, “While before they might not be related, by the time they got here they were first, second, third cousins.” When I ask him the usual stale question “What will you do after the mill closes?” he has a joke ready: “When I was in school, I took up space. So I might go into aeronautical engineering.” But Lopes’ admiration for HC&S is no joke. “My dad worked forty-seven years as an equipment operator,” he says, and his son is a mechanic for a different division of A&B, Kahului Transport & Storage. With matter-of-fact sincerity he says, “People who come here are amazed at our trucks. We have the biggest machine shop in the State of Hawai‘i.”

So far I’ve heard nothing but affection for HC&S from the lips of those who have worked here and from the old-timers who remember plantation life. Such nostalgia for camp culture seems universal in these closing days, but it paves over some uncomfortable realities, like the brutal treatment of workers in the late 1800s, when Chinese laborers cut tunnels with hand tools by candlelight, and if they disobeyed, as one manager of the time put it, “I cowhide them on the spot.” It ignores the 4:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m. workday, six days a week during the 1930s for a dollar a day, and most of that went to the company store. It ignores the fact that US authorities during WWII had to inform the plantations that federal law forbade indentured servitude.

But for Lopes as for many in the final generation of plantation workers, sugar outgrew all that. “Plantation life was a good life,” he says. “In the camps there were no problems. The new generation don’t really know.”

To my amazement, people don’t complain even about working inside the mill, which is my last stop. For me as for many Maui residents, the mill has always been an eyesore, an ugly sheetmetal box that was built in New York in 1900, shipped to Maui and dedicated the following year. Inside, it’s a steampunk wonderland, with machinery that’s as dazzling as the exterior is shabby. Walking through it is a full-contact sport—the jet-engine-loud whistle of the vacuum pans, the molasses smell, the monstrous, whirling mechanisms that would just as quickly juice a human as cane. The mill is the pinnacle of 134 years of constant invention. Soon it will be gutted and its components sold abroad.

Eric Molina has worked five years in the mill. He was a millwright’s apprentice in both the machine and the welding shop. “It was one of the dirtiest jobs I’ve ever done,” he says. And dangerous. The environment in the mill hurt his health, he says, and his intimate experience of sugar production convinced him to stop eating sugar. Still, he says, “I’m very proud of working there.” His great-great-grand-parents worked for the plantation starting in the 1890s. Eric left the island for many years and worked as a forest manager in Oregon and Idaho. In 2000 he came back “to be with my family.” He says “it was one of the joys of my life to work for the company that brought my family to the Islands. It was a joy to work at Pu‘unene and to be part of that culture and community.”

Of course, family ties can explain his affection for HC&S. But Larry Lambert, the former field engineering technician who modified tractors and helped convert the fields to drip irrigation, has no such family background; he came out from Massachusetts as a young married man in ’69. Yet he feels the same enthusiasm for Maui sugar and for the island. “That smell, it’s nostalgic,” he says. “That’s what I’m going to miss. That squeezed, juicy, hot molasses. You can still smell it out in the fields, that aroma of burnt cane.”

In front of the HC&S administrative building, a handmade sign reads TRANSITION. Dressy clothes hang on a rack, and a counselor welcomes the employees to coach them in job interviewing. The federal government will be supporting laid-off workers with cash and retraining programs. This support is likely to extend to outside businesses affected by the change, for example trucking companies.

No one’s sure what impact the closing will have on Maui’s economy. Speculations about the future range from dismal to bright. Neither is anyone quite sure what’s next. Sugar will go, but HC&S will not, nor will it abandon the land to weeds and wind. General manager Rick Volner sees the end of sugar not as a termination but “a great opportunity, the creation of a blank canvas.” The transition to what’s next will take a few years of exploration, he says, but the company is keenly interested in biofuel production and in cooperative arrangements with other growers and with ranchers. If anybody knows what’s going to happen, they’re not saying.

The company has always been willing to make big changes—redirecting rainwater, remaking the island’s population, laying railroad tracks and pulling them up, building camps and tearing them down, retooling farm equipment and, now, whatever comes next. For the time being HC&S intends to keep the land open for new uses. “It might be a few different shades of green,” Volner says, “but it will still be green.”