KAHULUI, Maui — Tens of thousands of abandoned acres of farmland lie fallow on this island, cemeteries of Hawaii's defunct plantation era, which met its end last year when the state's last remaining sugar grower shut down an operation that had run for 146 years.
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s sprawling sugar cane fields used to provide visitors to Maui a rolling green blanket as they arrived at the airport, but they are newly stagnant, joining other growers in a long decline. Facing competition from cheap foreign labor, a shortage of farmworkers and some of the nation’s highest land costs, the sugar and pineapple plantations that used to be the state’s lifeblood are not redeploying into active agriculture, raising questions about the industry’s future here.
“Pineapple is lost, sugar is lost, and we now have one sole industry, which is a very dangerous position to be in,” said Maui County Councilman Alika Atay. “We have put all our eggs into one basket, and that is tourism. But not everybody who lives on this island wants to work in the hotel industry, and it’s almost impossible to feed a family here working as a farmer. We are now seeing drastic displacement of young people leaving Maui because of a lack of economic opportunity.”
The closure of Maui’s last sugar producer marked a pivotal moment in Hawaii’s agricultural production. Since 1980, Hawaii’s total land use for agricultural production has shrunk by about 68 percent, according to data from the University of Hawaii.
Sugar had, at one point, been Hawaii’s top crop. Now the corn seed industry is the state’s dominant agricultural land user, followed by commercial forestry and macadamia nuts. But none of those products, not even when combined, come anywhere close to filling the economic void created by the loss of sugar and pineapple.
The state’s Agriculture Department is working on the issue with a depleted staff — 122 of its 360 positions are vacant, including the entire branch responsible for market analysis and tracking the state’s trends in food imports and production. The agency is narrowing its focus to court outside capital for investments in Hawaii food production and is studying the possibility of allowing farmers to inhabit small family homes alongside their crop beds. Tenant farming is now restricted on state agriculture land.
“There are tens of thousands of acres of good ag land, at least, currently sitting fallow in Hawaii, where we have some of the most expensive land in the world,” said Department of Agriculture Director Scott Enright. “At the same time, we’ve got a group of farmers who are aging out of the business. The next generation is coming in and finding if you’re going to try and start up a farm when you’re a 20-something with no track record, the banks aren’t going to lend to you. That’s a problem for us.”
The sugar industry, which helped usher Hawaii into statehood, steered the state’s politics and economy for more than a century. It helped build company towns inhabited by multiethnic field laborers from Asia and Europe.
With statehood came U.S. labor laws, inspiring Hawaii’s biggest sugar and pineapple producers to embrace cheaper foreign labor. As monocrop agriculture declined, the state put its economic faith in tourism, which accelerated as jet plane travel became faster and more affordable. Plantation companies either vanished or transitioned into land-development firms.
Some swaths of farmland have been sold off and developed into commercial or residential real estate, inspiring fears that Hawaii’s agrarian past could one day be lost to a more citified future.
“We have and we will continue to lose ag land to urban development,” Enright said.
HC&S is a division of Alexander & Baldwin, one of Hawaii’s largest commercial real estate holders.
The passage of the plantation heyday has been slow but impactful. In 1980, Hawaii hosted 14 sugar and four pineapple plantations that farmed more than 300,000 acres. In 2017, these two crops account for less than 5,000 acres. Once the largest pineapple plantation in the world, the island of Lanai’s former crop beds are now parched and deserted.
Hawaii spends as much as $3 billion a year to import 90 percent of its food, and residents routinely pay some of the highest prices in the nation for staples such as eggs and milk. Even the grain that feeds the cows on the islands’ two dairy farms is shipped in. Should a natural disaster affect the ability for cargo ships to arrive, the state’s 1.4 million residents and nearly 9 million annual visitors could be vulnerable to crippling food shortages.
The shaky state of food security in the world’s most isolated group of islands has prompted Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) to set a deadline of 2030 to double local agriculture production, a goal that some experts decry as unrealistic because Hawaii does not consistently track agricultural data about crop yields.
On an island chain that once was completely self-sufficient — before the arrival of Westerners in the late 1700s, indigenous Hawaiians thrived 2,500 miles from the nearest continent using sustainable farming and fishing methods — many believe a resurgence of agriculture is possible.
“There’s no reason why we should go to a grocery store and see a banana from Ecuador or Mexico. We can grow banana here,” Atay said. “Why do we go to the store and see mango from Chile, not mango from Maui, when Maui grows some of the sweetest-tasting mango in the world? Because in the last 200 years we never had the land and the water available — until now.”
HC&S has so far deployed 4,500 of its 36,000 farmland acres. A new grass-fed cattle operation aims to expand local beef production through a 300-calf management partnership with Maui Cattle Company. More than 95 percent of the beef consumed in Hawaii has been shipped in from the U.S. mainland. On Maui, HC&S hopes to cut that number to as low as 80 percent.
In addition to raising cattle, HC&S has dedicated 1,500 acres to grow sweet potato and crops that help produce energy. Hawaii’s eight main islands have the highest electricity prices in the nation, but a 250-acre orchard of pongamia trees, which produce biofuels, could help wean the state off its fossil fuel dependence, experts say.
Another 800 acres are being considered for an agricultural park for small-scale, local farmers.
“We’ve been talking about diversified agriculture and energy for 10 years, but nobody has found the magic bullet,” said Rick Volner, the former HC&S plantation manager who now oversees the company’s fledgling diversified agriculture program. “The hope was that we could launch right into it. Instead we’re trying to grow different crops to try and see what works.”
Elsewhere on the island, the shift away from agriculture is providing some immediate relief. Water diversions from hundreds of streams long fed the island’s sugar cane at the expense of the wetland taro crop cultivated by indigenous Hawaiians in rural east Maui. A storm of lawsuits over water rights coupled with the sugar industry’s gradual scale-back has led to some restoration of the natural water flow.
With water returned to the remote Wailua Nui Valley, a new program at a nearby public school is reintroducing local families to the culturally important practice of taro farming. Last year, more than 150 people in Maui’s Hana community pounded poi, the starchy Hawaiian staple food, for the first time in their lives.
“My grandchildren used to tell me, ‘Papa, what happened to the water?’” said sixth-generation taro farmer Edward Wendt. “King Sugar — that’s where our water went. Now that it’s flowing again, I must show and teach the younger generation as much as I can for as long as I can.”
Elsewhere on Maui, the Colorado-based land development firm Bio-Logical Capital manages an oceanfront cattle ranch and diversified organic fruit and vegetable farm on 3,600 acres formerly cultivated for sugar. The company’s goal is to invent a sustainable agricultural system that enriches the land, provides healthy, fresh food for the local population and lends itself to be duplicated as a model food-production system in communities across the globe.
“The land in Maui that was in sugar is some of the best ag land in the world,” said Bio-Logical CEO Grant McCargo. “But politically, how do you put that land back to good use?”
McCargo noted that the challenge for publicly traded companies is to manage risk with shareholder value.
“This really is a public policy question,” he said. “After all, we wouldn’t still be farming corn in this country if it weren’t for subsidies from the government.”