Native Intelligence: Maui

Fields of Gold

Story by Kyle Ellison. Photos by Rodrigo Moraes.

There aren’t many diesel mechanics who become farmers, but that’s what happened to Bob King of Pacific Biodiesel. Back when he headed King Diesel on Maui, one of his jobs was to bury waste cooking oil in the ground. But he knew there had to be an alternative. “Why don’t you use it in your generators?” he asked the operators of the Central Maui landfill. “That would be great,” they said. “Figure out how to do that.” In the twenty-five years since, King not only figured out how to turn grease-trap waste into fuel, he’s revolutionizing

agriculture on Maui—starting with fields of sunflowers. In 2016, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. announced the end of sugar production on Maui after 145 years. Once the island’s residents got over the shock, they started thinking about how to repurpose thirty-six thousand acres of former cane land. That question remains open, but at least 115 of them will be planted with sun-flowers, safflower, camelina—anything that produces oil.

As America’s oldest biodiesel company, Pacific Biodiesel has been tinkering with sunflower oil for years. It’s grown test crops on Hawai‘i Island to gauge its viability, and its biodiesel has been lauded as some of the best and cleanest. All of the company’s tractors and trucks run on it, as does the hulking red combine that plows the fields of flowers. The sunflowers don’t require pesticides, rain provides irrigation and the densely planted rows shade out the weeds. Better still, biodiesel produces 86 percent less emissions than petroleum, and it’s completely sustainable—it’s literally locally 
grown fuel.

For now, seeds are sent to Hawai‘i Island to extract the oil, but the goal is to build a biorefinery on Maui and to increase the field to a thousand acres—then ten thousand, twelve thousand and beyond. It’s an ambitious plan, considering that Pacific Biodiesel started with just fourteen acres. But the project provides a “level of hope the island really needed,” says King’s wife, Kelly, who also serves on the Maui County Council. “We have fallow ag on Maui at a level that we’ve never seen before. The prevailing thought was it was going to take five to ten years before anything could grow here, but we knew it could take much less time, and this,” she says gesturing toward the fields, “is living proof.”