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The End of an Era: Hawai‘i’s Last Sugar Mill Closes Forever

Hawai‘i’s last sugar mill closes this month on Maui. It’s the end of an era, and the beginning of a whole new set of challenges for Hawai‘i agriculture.


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Maui Sugar Mill

Just about every exposed surface of the mill is coated in decades of red dirt.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino

 

After 115 years, the HC&S Pu‘unēnē sugar mill is shutting down for good.

They call it The Beast. Built in 1901 by the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. in the heyday of the plantation era, the Pu‘unēnē sugar mill has run more or less continuously ever since, one of the few constants as Hawai‘i grew and developed around it. The mill sprawls over about 15 acres of hot, dry dirt, an imposing heap of corrugated-metal-clad factory buildings stuffed with massive industrial equipment devoted to one main task: extracting sugar from the cane fields that cover Maui’s central valley.

 

The Beast is a hungry thing, demanding a steady diet of cane stalks, as much as 7,000 tons a day, to crush, boil, centrifuge and dry into big, sweet, brown crystals. It devours the entire output of 36,000 acres of sugar cane, grown all year long; crews work 24 hours a day, in three shifts, to feed it. The Beast is loud, it’s filthy from decades of mud and grease and chemicals, it belches steam and noxious odors. It’s also been the livelihood for thousands over the past century, and a tentpole of Maui’s economy.

 

And at the end of this month, the whole thing is shutting down for good.

 

After 146 years of sugar production, HC&S’s final harvest is scheduled for Dec. 12, and the rest is mostly cleanup and wrapping up loose ends. No longer will white smoke pour out of the Pu‘unēnē Mill’s twin stacks, signaling the speed and direction of the wind to passersby. No longer will Maui’s central valley be carpeted in one single, verdant green crop. The Beast will sit vacant and still, its innards auctioned off and its doors bolted up. 

 

Inside sugar mill

THE MILL HAS BEEN CONTINUOUSLY UPGRADED AND REPAIRED FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY.

 

The announcement wasn’t a complete surprise. Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations—there were once 27 of them across the state—have been closing for 45 years, one after another, the inevitable result of a global economy that’s driven large-scale agriculture to countries with dramatically lower production costs. (Sugar workers in Brazil, the world’s largest producer of sugar, for example, make roughly $300 a month.)

 

Pu‘unēnē Mill was the last, and it only made it this long because of some special traits: the economies of scale enjoyed as Hawai‘i’s largest, most technically advanced sugar operation; good access to fertile, flat land; sunny weather that made for reliably great growing conditions; cheap access to water, thanks to the East Maui Irrigation system.

 

But the larger trend was impossible to ignore. Workers had traded rumors for years that the mill was closing soon—the kind of urban legend that seemed inevitable to become reality. 

 

Still, when Alexander & Baldwin gathered its HC&S employees together on Jan. 6 to break the news for real, it was a shock. Wes Bissen, a machinist who’s worked for HC&S for 35 years, was there, and says, “We were all standing there, and I could see some guys, their legs give out. Was kind of heavy.” When you work for a place for 20, 30, 40 years, when your father and your grandfather both worked for the mill, as was true for many HC&S workers, the news is going to come hard.

 

Inside the sugar mill

The sugar cane stalks are crushed and washed repeatedly, to extract as much sucrose as possible.

 

Living and working with the knowledge that the end is near for a full year has been weird, as well, workers say. Layoffs happened in batches, 30 or 40 people a month, as the huge operation began to spin down. The planting crew was among the first to go—there wouldn’t be any new crops, after all. Maintenance workers, too. By this final month, only about half of the original 675 employees remain, a skeleton crew to process the last truckfuls of cane and turn off the lights. 

 

A transition team has been working to cushion the layoffs. It’s held multiple job and resource fairs and, by early November, had helped find new jobs for 117 of the staff. (By that time, 240 employees had been laid off, 58 had retired or relocated, and another 50 resigned before being laid off to accept new employment or pursue other opportunities.)

 

Koa Martin
Koa Martin

But, for many of the HC&S workers, there is nothing that could replace the Beast. It’s more than a job—it’s who they are.

 

Donald Gusman, the mill superintendent, presides over the daily operations in a control room with a bank of computer monitors displaying every last detail of every machine in the place. But after 43-and-a-half years of working at the factory, Gusman can tell when something’s wrong just by listening to the din around him. “If I’m down in my office and the mill is not running right, I’ll know. I’ve been here so long that I can hear all the different frequencies and sounds, how much cane is going through the mill, if it’s not going through the mill, if something’s stuck. I’ve gotten so in tune with the noises and sounds.”

 

Koa Martin, a millwright specialist, has a similarly intimate relationship with the Pu‘unēnē Mill. His job is to keep the entire place running smoothly, maintaining its equipment and fixing everything from a busted gasket to the huge, 15-ton rotor of the mill’s cane shredder. When you’re talking about a one-of-a-kind facility that’s been continuously updated on the fly for 115 years, every repair job is a custom one.

 

“We modify this factory as we see fit,” he says. “It might not look like much, but there’s been a lot of evolution, even from 20 years back, when I first started. We’re constantly looking at ways to make ourselves just a little more efficient.”

 

“We work a lot of hours, and—I have to say it—it’s really hot, it’s really bad, it’s really greasy and muddy,” Martin says. “It takes a certain type of person. You have to really want to do this. I’ve seen many people come and go.”

 

“If I’m down in my office and the mill is not running right, I’ll know. I’ve gotten so in tune with the noises and sounds.” — Donald Gusman

 

The ones who stay? Well, they become family. Martin says of his network of HC&S coworkers, “It’s just Maui. I can safely say that, on this side of the island, with the exception of Lahaina, I guarantee I know who you are just by your last name, and I can trace you back within five minutes. That’s how tight this community is around here.”

 

Many of the people we spoke with were vague about their plans, come January. They’ve got résumés out there; they were going to think about their options later. While the mill was running, they were still focused on finishing up this job.

 

Some had had enough of all the sympathy. Bissen says, after the news of the closure hit, he got calls from everyone he knew, expressing condolences. “For the first couple of days, the sorrys was alright,” he says. “And then when they kept going up till now, Hey, sorry, man, that’s rough, I’m kind of over it already. What you guys going do? everybody asks. Who going take care of the place over there? I tell them, try come, I no like hear. Who cares? I’m out! Who cares?” Still, he admits, “It still never hit me yet.”

 

Sugar mill workers

Photo: Michael Keany

 

ASmoke fields the majority of the HC&S workforce gets ready for the end, a crew of five is working hard on figuring out what to do with the 36,000 acres that will suddenly be fallow next month.

 

And A&B says it’s committed to keeping its Maui lands in agriculture. How exactly to do that is the tricky part. The timeline of Hawai‘i’s closed sugar plantations is littered with false starts and failed business ventures.

 

Mae Nakahata, the HC&S director of agricultural research and crop control, says it’s vital to have a solid, economically viable plan before committing to any big investments. “Over the years, I’ve learned some hard lessons that I’m trying not to repeat,” she says.

 

Nakahata was there when Hāmākua Sugar Co. shut down in 1994. “I was part of the transition after the mill closed,” she says. “We planted taro and ginger on the land. And we quickly flooded the market. We tried to establish our export markets, but by then our crops were ready to harvest. A bitter lesson I learned is that you have to understand the whole cycle, even as you’re solving the agricultural side of things.”

 

Right now, A&B is betting on diversified agriculture, mostly in the form of energy crops and biofuel. It’s growing 182 test acres of sorghum, and smaller plots of corn, soybeans, sunflowers and safflowers, all of which could be used to create biofuel, either through their oil or by anaerobic digestion.

 

Jerrod Schreck, A&B’s director of land stewardship and renewable energy development, says, “We believe that, if the state is going to reach its goal of 100-percent renewable energy, there’s gotta be a local firm powered by biofuel. We’d like to make an argument that some of it should be produced on our land.”

 

Control room

FROM THE CONTROL ROOM, OPERATORS CAN KEEP TRACK OF EVERY PART OF THE PROCESS.

 

There’ll be other flavors of agriculture happening, too, he says. There’s too much climate and topographical variation across the thousands of acres for one solution to work, so he expects to see some food production, some livestock, some leased land. A&B is pitching an ag park that would facilitate niche-market vegetables, and beginner farmers who only want to cultivate 5 to 10 acres.

 

Each idea comes with its own challenges—even the current front-contender, biofuel. Growing sugar as a monocrop was a solved problem; after almost 150 years of focused research, HC&S knows how to grow and harvest it efficiently, it knows how to deal with pests, it knows how to get the maximum sugar out of every stalk. But put in a new crop, and you’ve suddenly got a whole new ecosystem’s worth of problems.

 

The sorghum fields have worked pretty well so far, but the other crops have been … finicky. Shyloh Stafford-Jones, a Missouri farmer who A&B hired last year to oversee the diversified ag team and help troubleshoot the new crops, says, “We had a heavy infestation of pigeons and other birds. We had to cover them with nets to get them to germinate, the soybeans and the sunflowers both. And the safflowers, the birds were so diligent, they just followed right behind the planter, we couldn’t even get it covered.”

 

Sorghum field

The sorghum fields.

 

Windy conditions stunted the growth of the grain corn. The sorghum got hit hard with an infestation of lesser cornstalk borer. The kiawe trees in which all the hungry birds roost can’t be cut down because they also house honeybees vital for pollination. The team still hasn’t figured out the optimum field rotation, including a cover crop that would limit dust and break up the soil whenever the money-maker crops aren’t growing (daikon, with its long 2-to-4-foot tap root, is one promising contender). Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of work yet to be done.

 

Further adding to the uncertainty is the ongoing argument over what should happen to all the East Maui Irrigation water that was being used for sugar cane. Schreck says that to call the EMI water crucial to A&B’s plans in Maui would be an understatement. “For these lands to stay in agriculture, for any farmer, including us, to invest in a crop or a business on these lands, there’s gotta be certainty about the source and supply of water, at a reasonable cost,” he says.

 

Scott Enright, chair of the state Department of Agriculture, says, “It’s going to end up in the state Supreme Court. Because the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. or Hawaiian Homes or [Office of Hawaiian Affairs] is going to take it before the courts, and they should just go straight to the Supreme Court because eventually it’s going to land there. That’s how all our decisions will go forward. The scarcest resource on the planet? Fresh water. You’ll see that play out for the rest of your life.”

 

“Not many people these days really want to work the earth, you know?” — Maui Rep. Joe Souki

 

Enright’s quick prediction, for the long run: “I do believe that, at the end of the long discussions that we’ll have about water, there will be water for agriculture, going forward.”

 

At this point, the clock is ticking. A&B is proceeding with caution, but it doesn’t have all the time in the world. One of the things that makes its dream of diversified agriculture even close to feasible is that all this Maui land is contiguous, that it’s owned by a single company, and that all of the infrastructure supporting it—roads, electricity, irrigation—is up to date and still running. Wait too long, and what was once prime ag land may start looking like the run-down patchwork of underused plots that is all that is left of Hawai‘i’s other sugar plantations.

 

Enright says that A&B should have hammered out its transition years ago. “The writing’s been on the wall for a long time. And because it’s been known for so long that it’s going to close, it’s interesting that there wasn’t a fully thought-out agricultural plan for the plantation. If you’re too busy running the mill, you hire a consultant. That’s what you do.”

 

Sugar mill

Piles of cane stalks can dwarf the workers tasked with processing them.

 

But all the planning in the world might be in vain if no one wants to work in the fields. Maui Rep. and House Speaker Joe Souki has helped pass legislation to cushion the economic blow of the sugar mill closing, but questions how realistic it is to talk about diversified agriculture, given today’s modern culture and Maui’s track record with agricultural land. “Young people don’t want to farm,” he says. “The big problem is to find people to work on the land. We already have 15,000 acres or more from Wailuku Agribusiness (now Wailuku Water Co.) and it’s not being used. It’s just lying fallow. We also have land in Lahaina, from the old Pioneer Mill when it closed, and a lot of that land is not being used either. Not many people these days really want to work the earth, you know?”

 

With so many unknowns facing Maui, the workers of HC&S are focusing on feeding the Beast for just a few days more, taking in the sights and the sounds and the smells while they still can.

 

Martin points up to the wall of the machine-shop break-room, which is papered with scores of photos of smiling workers. “This is all guys who was here before us,” he says. “It kinda keeps them in the memories, yeah? So they’re not too far away from us. Family, brah, that’s what it is. One big family portrait.”

 

HC&S workers:

Donald gusman Wes Bissen Workers
Merlita Crespin Robert Luuwai Mae Nakahata
Myrna and Donna Worker and truck Daniel Martinez
1. Donald Gusman 2. Wes Bissen 3. Merlita Crespin 4. Robert Luuwai 5. Mae Nakahata, 6. Myrna Mcfarland and Donna Ventura 7. Daniel Martinez

 

READ MORE STORIES BY MICHAEL KEANY

 

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