End of Sugar in Hawaii Series

Feb 10, 2017

Final Harvest Underway As Hawaii Sugar Comes To An End

August 26, 2016

Credit Molly Solomon

Credit Molly Solomon

Sugar operations at HC&S on Maui are winding down. Back in January, the state’s last sugar plantation announced plans to close down by the end of the year. HPR’s Molly Solomon was there for what will be the final harvest and has this report.

Life After Cane: The House That Sugar Built

October 5, 2016

On a clear day, Dorothy Pyle can see both sides of the island from the back porch of her Makawao home. Below are the last 35,000 acres of sugar cane owned by HC&S. They will be closing operations by the end of the year.
Credit Molly Solomon

Tucked away in upcountry Maui on the lower slopes of Haleakalā, Dorothy Pyle meets me outside her home in Makawao.

“By building the house out here and putting it on poles, this is what we get,” said Pyle.

We take in the view from her porch, that looks out toward the West Maui mountains: everything from the Kīhei shore to Kahului. She’s spent a lot of time out here watching sunsets, airplanes, and looking out at Hawai‘i’s last 35,000 acres of sugar.

“From a sugar point of view, it’s a tragedy,” said Pyle. “It’s been green forever, but it’s getting browner and browner. Pretty soon it’s going to be all brown.”

Pyle spent more than 35 years teaching Hawaiian history at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. She’s lived in the islands since 1967 and met her husband Bill here.

Sugar was always at the root of everything. Even when it came to her house. The sanded slabs of redwood are actually from leftover molasses crates that floated across the Pacific. They’re one of the last remnants of the Paia Mill, which closed on Maui in 2000. Bill was a longtime employee at HC&S who spent weeks waist deep in 30 year-old molasses, taking apart these crates to create the foundation of their home.

“So this is 120-year old redwood that you can’t find anywhere anymore,” she said. “And it’s from the sugar mill.”

The wood used to build the Pyle's home comes from 120-year-old redwood that was used to hold molasses at the Paia Mill. When the mill shut down, Bill Pyle salvaged the old molasses crates and used them to build the foundation on their home.
Credit Molly Solomon

Before that, she and Bill lived in a plantation home in Pu‘unēnē. The camps, now long gone, were some of the first homes for waves of immigrants to Central Maui. Pyle says the place would erupt in festivities once a year, after the annual harvest was complete.

“They would have this big plantation wide party that they called their ‘Harvest Home,’ the harvest-has-come-home party,” said Pyle. “It was for the employees, the supervisors — it was really amazing, a lot of fun.”

Looking out at the remaining fields, Pyle points to the smokestacks below.

“That’s actually one of our weather things,” she said, looking down at the mill. “We can tell everyday whether it’s windy down there or not, whether it’s trade winds or Kona, because of the way the smoke’s blowing in the smokestacks.”

Dorothy Pyle on her lanai.
Credit Molly Solomon

All of these are little things that Pyle will soon find missing in her life — the sounds, the smells, the people.
“There is that nostalgia about that community life,” said Pyle. “It’s changing us forever because I will never see 35,000 acres of agriculture again, it just won’t happen. So that whole feel of the island —flying in over these fields and driving through them going to Lahaina — never going to be again.”

For now, she and Bill will enjoy the last few months of green sugar cane, taking it in from their porch while it’s still there.

Maui Workers, Residents Say Goodbye To Sugar

November 18, 2016

HC&S VP of factory operations Robert Luuwai, walks through the sugar mill on Maui for one of the last times.
Credit Molly Solomon

The crop that once defined Hawai‘i is facing its final harvest. Next month, Hawai‘i Commercial & Sugar Company will close its operations. For many, the industry was more than just a place to work—it represented an entire way of life. HPR’s Molly Solomon recently visited Maui and has this report.

Robert Luuwai opens the door to the Pu‘unēnē mill for one of the last times. The VP of factory operations has been working at HC&S on Maui for more than 30 years.

“When I first started in 1983, it was 13 mills,” said Luuwai. “We’re the last of the Mohicans right now.”

Inside the building, it’s loud. The ground vibrates as a conveyor belt above us carries freshly cut cane through a wash cycle. Every gear and piece of machinery is covered in a layer of brown dust and a sweet, slightly burnt smell permeates the building. All of these things, Luuwai said, he’ll miss.

“It doesn’t feel too good, but life goes on,” said Luuwai. “We kind of saw it coming. The valley already looks different. It used to be green, now it’s brown.”

Six years short of retirement, Luuwai says he’s not sure what he’ll do next. “Hopefully I’ll find something,” he said. “But I guess it’s the next stage of my life.”

Sugar has reshaped life in Hawai‘i for more than a century. Dorothy Pyle is a retired history professor at Maui Community College. She says when western whalers arrived in the islands in the 1800s, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i saw an opportunity for trade. But unfortunately, their arrival also brought some unintended consequences.

“With all the westerners came all the diseases,” said Pyle. “And the population starts to decline. What had been a very full land, full of people living a subsistence life, now becomes empty land.”

That empty land created room for sugar. Plantations in the islands began to grow, and became big business after the Kingdom of Hawai‘i reached a deal with the United States, removing tariffs from Hawaiian sugar exported to the U.S.

“It grew and grew through the 1880s up to the 1890s period of time,” Pyle explained. “And sugar is very labor intensive. Back then it took a lot of hands, the cutting, planting, hauling. So it make sense for the sugar industry and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to look for people from the outside.”

That need for labor brought immigrants from Asia, shaping the unique ethnic makeup of the islands. Some were likely the ancestors of Teri Freitas Gorman, the President of the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce.

“Actually my ethnic heritage is what I call plantation pedigree,” said Gorman. “I’m almost in the order that they came: I’m Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese. And I’m Native Hawaiian as well.”

A Wailuku girl, Gorman grew up encompassed by sugar cane. Some of her memories from small kid times include running in the fields and hearing the crackle of cane burns at night.

“We all called it Maui snow,” said Gorman, as she remembered watching cane burns from her grandmother’s house in Wailuku. “The ash would fall out from the sky and you just knew they were burning cane. It was just part of life, you didn’t really question it.”

Gorman remembers growing up in a simpler time, when Maui was still a sleepy agricultural town. Just the smell of molasses brings her back to those days.

“There’s a word in Brazilian Portuguese, saudade, and it means kind of a bittersweet memory. It’s bitter because you miss it, but it’s sweet because it has such wonderful feelings associated with it,” Gorman said. “So whenever I would come home to Maui from college or after traveling, that really distinctive smell of the molasses being processed, it really created that feeling of saudade in me.”

Pua Canto also has strong memories tied to sugar. She’s a Hawaiian Homes Commissioner who now lives in upcountry Maui.  As a young girl, she grew up in the plantation camps in Pu‘unēnē. The camps, now long gone, were some of the first homes for waves of immigrants to Central Maui. Her father, a machinist, would spend his days making intricate tools in the mill, whose smoke stacks still loom over the valley. They still carried memories for her on a recent visit.

“I walked by there and it was tough,” Canto said. “I envisioned where I used to come and pick up my Dad. I could see him walking out with the rest of them. Hard work and good work, good people.”

It’ll be hard to accept for many, like Canto, who have considered sugar a part of their identity. She wonders what will happen to the remaining workers once the mill shuts down later this year.

“As for the future, we’ll have to see,” she said. “But when the final close-down days for HC&S does happen, they’ll be a lot of teary-eyed folks.”

Canto says she’ll be one of them. Before we leave, she reaches in her purse and hands me a bottle from one of the last batches of Maui Brand cane sugar. She tells me to hold onto it, it’ll be a part of history soon.

Final Days of Hawaii Sugar Now a Part of History

December 13, 2016

Some of the remaining workers at HC&S stand in front of the last hauler truck of Hawaii grown sugar cane.
Credit Molly Solomon

The last remaining sugar mill in Hawai‘i wrapped up its final harvest yesterday. Hundreds of workers, families, and community leaders gathered at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company to say goodbye to a crop that shaped the islands. HPR’s Molly Solomon was there and has this report.

61-year-old Fermin Domingo climbs up the side of a sugar cane hauler for the last time. The haul truck driver has been working at HC&S for the past 40 years.

“I came here when I was 18 from the Phillippines, said Domingo. "I joined the company and I started harvesting. It was fun working out there, but we’re at the end and I don’t know what to do later.”

61-year-old Fermin Domingo worked at HC&S for 40 years. He drove in the last truck hauler of sugar cane on the plantation's final day.
Credit Molly Solomon

Domingo fires up the engine and the truck slowly rumbles toward the mill, its tires churning through thick mud. It stops at the base of a conveyor belt and a giant crane hooks the final load of Maui sugar cane. Cheers break out from the hundreds of workers standing nearby.

Benji Pascua (center) records the final moments of sugar operations in Hawaii with a group of mechanics from the mill.
Credit Molly Solomon

“It’s just an emotional thing," said mechanic Billy Cavilla. "Just realizing it’s going to end.”

Cavilla watches the final hauler from the sidelines and whips out his cell phone to record the historic moment. Next to him is 59-year old Robert Lopes, another mechanic at the mill.

“A lot of these people I see more than my family," said Lopes. "We’re not going to see each other no more. I think for me, that’s the hardest thing.”

More than 500 people came to witness the last harvest day. Many, including Governor Ige, have personal ties to Hawai‘i’s plantation legacy.

“My grandparents emigrated from Japan to work in the plantations more than 100 years ago, like so many others from the Philippines, China, the Portuguese," said Ige, who briefly attended the morning's event. "And it really was centered around the plantation.”

Ige says the state supports Alexander & Baldwin’s plan to keep HC&S lands in agriculture. The company currently has about 140 acres of biofuel crops in the ground, as it transitions toward diversified agriculture. A&B also recently expanded its cattle pasturelands to 4,000 acres.

Back at the mill, Howard Scott Pereira came to say his final goodbyes.

“I work over here about 15 years and I never thought this place would close up," said Pereira. "I’m sorry for the people who won’t have jobs. It’s very hard nowadays.”

The retired 78-year-old brought his daughter Colleen who says the story of sugar is what brought her family to Hawai‘i.

“Our families came when it was a territory to work the plantations," said Colleen. "So we had to come.”

The remaining workers will finish processing the final harvest this week. The last shipment of sugar, a little more than 30,000 tons, is scheduled to ship out to Crockett, California on Wednesday.