Maui Plantation fights for survival

Maui Plantation fights for survival
Rodney Chin
Rodney Chin

By Lisa Kubota - bio | email

MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Sugarcane used to be king in the islands. Immigrants from around the world came to Hawaii in search of a better life. They labored in the fields and factories and also raised families in camps providing the foundation for a multi-ethnic society.

But now the state's last sugar plantation is fighting for survival on Maui.

"The primary reason that we've survived when others have not been able to is the scale of our plantation. We're the largest plantation. We always have been," Plantation General Manager, Christopher Benjamin said.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company cultivates more than 35-thousand acres of cane in central Maui. Its factory in Puunene dates back to 1901. This year, HC&S says it suffered its lowest sugar production in decades mainly because of a recent drought.

"This is what we call a node. Each month the cane plant put only two to three nodes on. So once you have a drought and you cannot put this node on, you lose growth. You'll never get it back," HC&S Farming Operations Director Rodney Chin said.

HC&S expects to lose about $30 million this year. The company's financial struggle comes at a tough time for the island's economy. Last month another major employer --Maui Land & Pineapple -- announced it would stop producing pineapples.

"Just hearing about Maui Pine really hits close to home," Apprentice Electrician Eshter Bugtong said.

"I've sent my daughter to college through employment here. I bought a home through employment here, and if it wasn't for this job, I don't know what I'd be doing," Chin said.

Sugar isn't the only source of income. HC&S uses the bagasse fiber from the sugarcane plant to generate electricity to run the mill. The excess is sold to Maui electric providing power to about 7-percent of the island. Because of the energy options, the company believes sugarcane is still a viable crop for the future.

"Whether we take the sugar cane plant and turn it into raw sugar as we do today or turn it into fuels and energy to a greater degree in the future is still to be determined," Benjamin said.

Those whose roots are in the red dirt of the cane fields hope Hawaii's only plantation doesn't become part of the past.

"See how beautiful it is. Nice and green. If we're gone, it's gonna be like a dustbowl," Bugtong said.

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