Hawaii's last sugar mill wraps up final harvest

Hawaii's last sugar mill wraps up final harvest 6pm update
Published: Dec. 11, 2016 at 11:12 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 12, 2016 at 8:28 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

PUUNENE, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii's only remaining sugar mill wrapped up its final harvest Monday with one last cane haul.

Hundreds of workers, retirees, and community members watched the delivery during a commemoration event at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company's Puunene factory. With operations winding down, many workers are unsure what they'll do next.

"You do this all your life, then you gotta figure out something else to do," said Robert Luuwai, vice president of factory operations.

Alexander & Baldwin, the parent company for HC&S, announced in January that it would phase out sugar production this year, after reporting a roughly $30 million agribusiness operating loss in 2015.

"Hawaii produced over a million tons of sugar per year for over 50 years. At one time that was 20% of all the sugar that was consumed in the United States," said Robert Osgood, a retired consultant for the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center and co-author of "From King Cane to the Last Sugar Mill."

One by one, Hawaii's other sugar farms closed or consolidated, leaving just the Puunene plantation. A&B's venture eventually started withering. Competing with low-cost sugar producers worldwide simply became too tough. The company also faced court battles over water rights and the public health effects of burning off cane leaves before harvests.

"The community on Maui has changed quite a bit. We've got a lot more urbanized areas and some of the nuisances that are associated with agriculture, especially sugar cane, definitely contributed to that," explained Rick Volner, HC&S plantation general manager.

Long gone are the days of plantation camps, with immigrants from around the world who shaped Hawaii's melting pot of ethnicities. Robin Fernandez and Ricky Watimar's great-grandfather came from Portugal. Six generations of their family ended up working in the sugar industry.

"You won't see sugar anymore, and sugar was all we know," said Fernandez.

A transition team is helping workers adjust to life after sugar. HC&S has already laid off about half of its 650 employees. More than 140 of them have found other jobs, according to the company.

Manuel Vierra, 60, will soon be looking for a new employer. He joined HC&S right out of high school.

"I was 18. So I've been working all the way straight though. Never know a day without work. I going know now, though, after everything is done with," said the crane driver.

A&B plans to transition its 36,000 acre property into diversified agriculture.

"It's kind of exciting to see something different. There is a change and glad to see that they're still trying to do some different kind of farming," said Mark Lopes, HC&S harvesting manager.

For many, watching the landscape change is bittersweet as Hawaii's last mill fades away into a memory.

"We had a very good run. We were struggling for many years, but the heart of the people made it last long," said Luuwai.

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