February 6, 2017
Editor’s note: December 12 marked the last sugar harvest in Maui and a sad day in the U.S. sugar industry. After more than a century, Hawaii will no longer produce sugar. Over the next four days, we will take a look back at what the crop meant to the islands, the incredible people who made it possible, and the cautionary tale it leaves behind for those of us on the Mainland. Thank you, Hawaiian sugar producers, for your many contributions to the U.S. sugar industry.
Rick Volner Jr. was just a few months out of college when he got his first job in the sugar industry. He worked in water reclamation.
The big mill on Maui, with its power plant and machinery, attracted him. It was a great place for a mechanical engineer.
He did well and moved into farm management, overseeing 9,000 acres from seed to finished sugar.
From there, it was on to senior vice president and finally plantation general manager.
Volner has 20 years on the job.
That might seem like a lot by today’s fast-paced career standards. But it’s not for Volner and the countless others who built Hawaii’s proud sugar industry.
“It was very common for me to sign retirement letters saying congratulations on your 40 years of service,” he said. “We had a lot of lifers.”
This winter marked the end of sugar’s long run in Hawaii.
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, a division of Alexander & Baldwin, completed its 145th sugarcane harvest and closed. It was the last mill in Hawaii – a state that is believed to have some of the most fertile sugarcane fields in the world.
Flat prices over the last four decades and rising expenses made it impossible to continue making sugar, says HC&S CEO Chris Benjamin.
Benjamin credits sugar with more than just providing jobs for generations. He says it built Hawaiian society.
“The sugar industry has probably been one of the most influential forces in shaping what is the state of Hawaii, and the population of Hawaii today, because it was the sugar industry, more than any other, that was the catalyst for the immigration of people from many different cultures over the last 150 years that has led to Hawaii really being the most diverse state, ethnically and culturally, in the country.”
For many workers, it’s been hard to see the mill close.
“There is some sadness,” Volner said. “But at the same time I think they are extremely happy that they were part of HC&S and the history of HC&S.”
And everyone at HC&S should be proud of what they built.