Waving Fields of Cane

 By Wayne Smith

           Regardless of the direction island visitors take from the airport they find themselves driving for miles through Maui's waving fields of sugar cane. On each side of most roads around the central valley, cane grows in profusion and creates an image of lushness that disguises the reality of the nearly desert-like climate which claims the leeward side of the island.


For much of the one-hundred-fifty years between 1850 and the present sugar cane has strongly influenced almost all phases of life on Maui and, for that matter, all of Hawaii. The state's history has been largely molded and formed by the crop and the people who grow it, tend it, and sell it.


In sugar's heyday there were eleven plantations and several mills in Maui, many thousands of acres of the island's land growing cane, and half the population in some way involved with sugar. Now, after the scheduled closure of AMFAC's Pioneer Mill in Lahaina at the end of the current harvest in September, Maui's remaining sugar plantation, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (HC&S), will operate the only two remaining sugar cane mills in Maui (plantations and mills also still operate in Kauai).


The beneficiary of countless mergers and acquisitions, HC&S operates mills in Puunene and Paia to process the cane harvested from the firm's 37,000 acres (almost three times the size of Manhattan) of owned and leased lands in Central Maui. The larger plant in Puunene operates on a year-around basis and Paia Mill operates during the peak of the summer harvest season.


Many hail the closure of Pioneer Mill as a boon and wish HC&S would soon follow suit. Critics cite the enormous clouds of red dust from tilling the soil, and plumes of black smoke and tendrils of "Maui snow" generated by the open-field harvest burning, as too damaging to the environment and health of the population to continue. Others are saddened to think how ugly the formerly irrigated and green fields and hillsides will be and worry about what might take their place.


A little history


Until the 1960s when tourism and national defense began to compete for economic superiority, sugar cane was the undisputed ruler. Cane was king, and everyone knew it. And, while there has been a shift in the economic base of the state, sugar interests still wield a considerable amount of influence in the political and social structures of Hawaii in general, and Maui County in particular, because of the industry's long history of  economic power.


Sugar cane came to Hawaii over 1,000 years ago with the Polynesian voyagers who found and settled the islands. Early Hawaiians chewed the stalk for its sweetness, but there is no evidence that they actually made sugar.


The ease with which it grows in the islands' mild tropical climate and rich volcanic soil, combined with the availability of ample lands and water, set off a hundred and fifty years of political manipulating, marketing competition, and business dealings which literally created today's Hawaii. Once an isolated and independent kingdom in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii, it's government, it's land and it's people were forged in a whirlwind of ambition and intrigue which set the stage for today's sugar industry and modern state.


There is a saying here in the islands that the missionaries "came here to do good, and stayed and did very well." They arrived in 1825 to deliver the Christian religious message to the Hawaiians, but they and their sons soon became powerful influences in virtually all matters, both secular and religious. They acquired control of vast amounts of land, developed sugar cane as a commercial product, and eventually helped usurp the Hawaiian Kingdom's power and designed the course to the 1898 annexation by the United States. On its one hundredth anniversary in 1993 the Federal government apologized for the illegal government, church, and individual actions which precipitated the bloodless 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani's Kingdom. The apology also fueled the smoldering desire of some who would like to reestablish the sovereignty of the old Hawaiian Kingdom.


Officially the first continuous commercial sugar cane plantation and mill was established in 1835 on Kauai. Cane had been grown and sugar made earlier by smaller operations including Maui's Hungtai Co., which was set up by Chinese founders in Wailuku in 1828.


Sugar became the old Hawaiian Kingdom's leading economic base just as the whaling industry, which had proven so profitable in the first half of the 19th century, faded in importance. The growth of the industry was aided by Hawaiian Kingdom legislative acts in 1848 and 1850. The earlier law allowed non-Hawaiians to own land and the later permitted contract laborers from other countries to be imported to work the fields. both laws were strongly supported by the budding sugar industry.


As the new industry grew, largely due to the mainland demand for sugar during the Civil War (1861-1865) when Union states lost access to southern grown sugar, plantations and mills sprang up all over the islands. By war's end in 1865 there were thirty-two plantations, most with milling companies, compared to only twelve in 1860. The US-Hawaii Reciprocity Treaty in 1876, which removed tariffs on sugar shipments to the mainland, boosted the industry's viability and eventually over 60 plantations and mills dotted the Hawaiian Kingdom's landscape. The sugar barons, who cultivated their political contacts in Washington, D.C. as well as they did their sugar cane fields, eventually used their clout to entice the US government to support their overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom to establish an independent Republic, and eventually achieve annexation and statehood for the islands.


Sugar cane requires an abundance of both water and sunlight for maximum productivity. The key to expanding sugar cane cultivation on Maui lay in bringing water to the island's central plain, formed by the isthmus between two volcanoes. Maui's first irrigation ditch (and only the second in Hawaii) was built in 1878 by Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin, whose informal partnership would eventually become A&B Inc., the sole remaining sugar plantation in Maui. Today, A&B's East Maui Irrigation Company has 74 miles of ditches which bring water from rainy east Maui to the dry central valley of the island. Water from the ditch system privately developed for Maui's sugar plantation is shared by the county of Maui, providing approximately one-third of the domestic water supply.


At the sugar boom's peak, Maui had eleven operational plantations and mills located from Kipahulu and Hana in the east to Lahaina in the west, and from Ulupalakua and Makawao upcountry to Wailuku in the north.


Many plantations had railroads to haul cane from the fields to the mill, but only remnants of one survive as part of the Lahaina, Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad Sugar Cane Train tourist attraction in Lahaina.


King sugar's appetite for laborers was the impetus behind Hawaii's reputation as a melting pot of the Pacific Rim, although the industry's search for cheap labor was not limited to the Pacific region. The first contract laborers were a ship load of Chinese "coolies" who arrived in 1852 and were distributed among the planters. They were followed by waves of workers from Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Philippines and other Pacific islands.


Each of the groups brought their cultural heritage to the islands. While they were intentionally kept separate in the early days, usually housed in plantation villages by nationality, they now add their rich cultural backgrounds to the tapestry which makes Maui no ka oi (the very best). The melting pot bubbles with the input of many international ingredients and the outcome is a tasteful and often colorful mix of heritages.


A contemporary look


Many Maui citizens believe that a critical mass has been reached of people who are being negatively effected by the practice of open field burning in one way or another. They point to the heavy toll cane  burning takes on the island's environment and economy and on the health of residents and visitors alike.  Now, for the first time they believe there are enough people on Maui who feel sugar cane burning is no longer acceptable corporate behavior and are willing to speak out against it.


HC&S has managed to stay competitive on the world sugar scene by continuing to change with the times. According to General Manager Stephen Holaday and Agricultural Manager Mae Nakahata, the company is continually experimenting with new varieties of cane to increase yields and improve the possibility of mechanical harvesting which requires a more upright cane stalk. They are also experimenting with and employing new methods of "green" harvesting, particularly near heavily populated areas. These changes alone may, in time, eliminate or greatly reduce the amount of burning. New mechanical harvesting methods also support "zone" tilling, borrowed from Midwestern corn farmers, which significantly reduces the billowing red dust clouds which are a nuisance to downwind people, homes and communities.


Cane harvested with the non-burning, mechanical techniques appears to be competitive from a cost point of view with the primitive burning methods. Because the soil does not need to be tilled and some of the "trash" is left to mulch the fields they are back into the critical growing cycle much more quickly and at less cost than with the burn, load and till method used for the past 75 years.


The economic impact on Maui of HC&S and its parent company, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), is enormous. Between their cane growing and milling operations, land development both here and on the mainland, housing development and shipping interests, A&B is one of the Big Five Hawaii-based companies which have, since the late 1800s, controlled and directed much of the state's business activity. The familiar names of the Big Five are; AMFAC (formerly American Factors), Alexander & Baldwin, Castle & Cook, Theo. Davies & Co, and C. Brewer & Co. In 1933, these five companies controlled ninety-six percent of Hawaii's sugar crop.


HC&S alone plows nearly $100 million into Maui's economy in wages, and service, product and material purchases. They and their parent, A&B, take considerable pride in their community consciousness and involvement.


While sugar cane is not the economic, political or social powerhouse it once was, and the sugar barons of old have long since given way to corporate American ways, the impact is still something to be reckoned with. HC&S and parent A&B are major players both on Maui and in Hawaii as a whole. They will continue to wield a great deal of power and influence into the next millennium.


Recommended resources:


Shoal of Time: A history of the Hawaiian Islands; Gavan Daws

 Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum


The Heritage Lives On:

The Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum

 by Gaylord C. Kubota

Museum Director


Although sugar plantation communities once dotted the island, most of them are long gone. However, their heritage lives on in the educational and entertaining exhibits at the award-winning Alexander & Baldwin sugar Museum in Puunene. The non-profit museum is located at the intersection of Puunene Avenue and Hansen Road, across from the Puunene (Goose Hill) Sugar Mill.


For nearly 100 years sugar cane dominated Hawaii's economy. Even today, after being eclipsed in the 1960s by tourism and defense spending as the state's leading industry, it remains the state's number one agricultural crop.


While much of the story of sugar on Maui is about land and water there also is fascinating story of the people who made sugar cane king here and in the rest of the islands - both those who made the big business and political decisions and those who toiled in the fields and factories to make it possible.


The Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum chronicles the saga of sugar on Maui with special emphasis on the people who made it possible. During the heyday of the industry, most of the island's population lived in plantation towns, the largest of which were Paia and Puunene. In the early days the plantations evolved into self-contained communities, providing or supporting such necessities as housing, company stores, hospitals and churches.


When labor needs of the growing industry no longer could be met by native Hawaiians, laborers were recruited from various countries around the world and brought to Hawaii. Arriving with hopes and dreams of a better life, these immigrants - Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Filipinos, etc. -  established the foundation of a multi-ethnic society that has come to characterize the Islands as the "melting pot of the Pacific."


Plantation housing generally consisted of ethnic "camps," colorfully identified by names such as "Ah Fong" for the Chinese, "Nashiwa" for the Japanese, and "Codfish" for the Portuguese. This arrangement had a dual purpose: To discourage cooperation among ethnic groups in the event of labor dissatisfaction; and to ease the transition to the new land by allowing immigrants to live among their fellow countrymen. The setting also perpetuated ethnic languages, customs and cultural heritages, providing continuity amidst traumatic change as immigrants adapted to life in a new land.


At the same time, however, a natural interaction among ethnic groups took place in the camps, at work and in school. They shared foods, such as Portuguese "stone bread," and even shared one another's customs: Japanese communal baths had many non-Japanese patrons. As a result, Hawaiian plantations camps melded into interracial communities whose members shared a common spirit and experiences.


Museum Hours

 July & August, Daily,  9:30 A.M. - 4:30 P.M.

Sept. to July, Mon. - Sat., 9:30 A..M. - 4:30 P.M.

 Phone - 871-8058



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