February 9, 2017
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a four-part series celebrating Hawaiian sugar production and the people who made it possible. Be sure to check out the other stories and lots of beautiful photos of Hawaii’s sugar industry at https://sugaralliance.org/hawaii
The last sugar operation in Hawaii officially closed its doors on December 12, ushering in an end of an era.
In 1870, partners Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin founded a plantation on 570 acres in Upcountry Maui. After merging with Claus Spreckels’ Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, the plantation eventually grew to more than 36,000 acres.
Alexander & Baldwin President & CEO Chris Benjamin says the most important factor in the company’s decision to close was relatively flat sugar prices globally over the last 40 years. Domestically, adjusted for inflation, prices have gone down.
“Meanwhile energy costs, labor costs, health insurance costs and everything else have been going up,” he says.
It just wasn’t profitable.
And something else has happened on Maui that made it hard to stay in the sugar business.
For a long time, the plantation was in the middle of nowhere. People passed as they traveled across the island but they didn’t live near it.
Slowly, development pushed the population closer to the plantation, and with it came critics who didn’t always understand sugar production or the industry’s importance and history.
That pressure ate away at the edges of a business already hanging on by slim margins.
NAFTA, which brought unneeded sugar from Mexico, didn’t help. Especially after government-run Mexican mills started dumping subsidized sugar onto the U.S. market in violation of America’s trade laws, driving down prices.
Eventually, closing was the only option for HC&S.
Today, the company controls a piece of land twice the size of Manhattan. Now the question becomes, how the land will be used?
The future will be agriculture but it will be a patchwork quilt of crops instead of a solid blanket of sugar, says Benjamin, who explained that a comprehensive process to evaluate a range of uses is already underway.
Some acres are now planned for cattle and dairy. There are plans for an agricultural park where residents can lease land to grow on a small scale. The company is looking at other large-scale production for bio-fuels or food.
They’ve had 250 inquiries from people interested in using the land.
Benjamin credits Hawaii’s previous Democratic Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka with helping the sugar industry as fierce protectors of no-cost sugar policy and champions of fair trade. More recently, he says Senators Brian Schatz (D) and Mazie Hirono (D) and Representatives Colleen Hanabusa (D) and Tulsi Gabbard (D) have picked up where their predecessors left off.
Without their collective efforts, Benjamin said, HC&S couldn’t have held out as long as it did.
In Hawaii, like other places, sugar was attractive because it could be grown and shipped as nearly a finished product. That kind of crop is hard to replace, which should serve as a wakeup call for HC&S’s colleagues on the Mainland still fighting policy battles.
“I think, in general, the country must be mindful of the fact that we can’t assume that land that falls out of sugar production is going to be easily repurposed to other types of agriculture,” he warned. “And I think we are going to end up having significant tracks of fallow land if we don’t support America’s efficient sugar industry going forward.”