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Top Stories of 2016 – Part 1: End of an Plantation Era

Photo: Glenn Cabrera
Maui County’s top story of 2016 was the closing of HC&S. The company with its huge fields of cane and its mill in Puunene was the last working sugar plantation in the state. HC&S is the agricultural division of parent company Alexander & Baldwin. A&B is the largest land owner on Maui. With the final sugar harvest in Dec. 2016, the HC&S workforce plummeted from an estimated 675 workers to fewer than 20 employees going forward into 2017. The A&B closing announcement came in January 2016, citing $30 million in losses in 2015, and projections of more losses to come.

HC&S was one of Maui’s largest employers, with an unionized workforce and a wide range of benefits. Although provisions have been made for re-training and additional unemployment compensation to mitigate the impact of the downsizing, most observers doubt that an agricultural workforce of a similar size receiving comparable wages and benefits will emerge anytime in the near future. The closure is seen as the end of an era and the final nail in the coffin of Hawaii sugar production.

“Well over a century old, HC&S began as a small Maui sugar cane plantation founded by two childhood friends,” according to the company website. “Augmenting their original investment in 12 acres below Makawao, Maui, with the acquisition of an additional 559 acres, Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin planted their first sugarcane crop in 1870 on their newly established Alexander and Baldwin plantation. Over the next three decades, they acquired a number of neighboring plantations that, together with their original plantation, formed Maui Agricultural Company. During that time, the partners invested in the development of essential water resources for their 3,000 acres and neighboring plantations. The Hamakua Ditch was an elaborate system of tunnels, ditches, siphons, flumes and reservoirs built over 17 miles of mountainous terrain – an engineering feat that would help shape water reclamation and irrigation procedures used by major projects on the U.S. mainland.

“In 1948, Maui Agricultural Company and HC&S merged, keeping the HC&S name and becoming the largest sugar producer in the United States. In 1962, HC&S merged with, and became a division of Alexander & Baldwin, Inc.”

With the closure of thousands of acres sugar operations here the question of what will become of the millions of gallons of water controlled by the plantation and formerly used for sugar irrigation. Also at the head of the “open for discussion” list is what use will be made of the more than 30,000 acres of agricultural lands that will no longer be in sugar production.

The 2016 session of the Hawaii State Legislature saw the passage of the controversial HB 2501, which allowed the parent company A&B a three-year extension on their water use permits. The measure was passed over the objections of many who thought the time had come to take a new look at the permits and how they were granted by the state. The rationale for the extension was it would provide a transition period from agriculture as it was in the era of sugar to agriculture as it will become here on the Valley Isle.

Those who opposed the extension argued that it gave ongoing control of a critical resource to a private concern that could no longer show the need for it, nor put forward a credible plan for its future land and water use was not in the public interest.

The desire of the public to know the company’s future plans in these two critical areas seem to only be matched by the company’s desire to play it close to the chest, with general announcement of plans for “diversified agriculture,” prominent in statements by the company but few specifics have so far been announced.

Playing in the background during the course of the year was the issue of cane burning. Mauians went to court to ask for an end to the long-standing practice, but it proved a moot point when the end of the plantation became a reality.

In a larger cultural context, HC&S represented an ongoing tradition on Maui and generations of families worked for the company and often saw themselves a close-knit unit. The closing of the plantation and the none too specific plans for the future have heightened what is already perceived as a rift between those who have lived here for many generations and more recent arrivals who saw sugar as an unsustainable legacy industry that was an unsustainable commodity crop in the 21st century.

This rift seems certain to broaden and deepen in the coming year, and with it’s uncertainty about the future of agriculture on Maui.

HC&S AUCTION coming up. Inspection is Mon and Tues (Jan 16 & 17), Auction is Wed & Thurs (Jan 18 & 19) at Maui Beach, beginning at 10 a.m.. You must preregister to bid.There is a catalog of items at the site. There will also be a live webcast

Editor’s Note: This story is the first in our three-part series.

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About Susan Halas

Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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