The Last Plantation

The shutdown of one of Hawai‘i’s few remaining pineapple plantations leaves 600 workers without jobs and possibly 200 without homes.

Editor’s Note: As this story went to press, Del Monte Fresh Produce announced that it would end its pine-apple production in Hawai‘i immediately, far ahead of the 2008 closing it had announced earlier this year. The company said it would lay off its more than 500 Hawai‘i workers by Jan. 22, 2007. Our January issue will feature a follow-up to “The Last Plantation.”

Fifty years ago, pineapple and sugar cane blanketed much of central O‘ahu, stretching out to the ‘Ewa Plain and the North Shore. Back then, towns like Waipahu, ‘Aiea and ‘Ewa were company towns—people worked on plantations and lived in company camps. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that these plantation towns slowly transformed into residential subdivisions, thousands of new homes, new schools, new malls. Somehow, the small pineapple plantation community known as Kunia Camp has escaped these changes, a relic of O‘ahu’s agricultural history.

Kunia Camp, O‘ahu’s last pineapple plantation camp.

Nestled in a pocket of more than 3,000 acres leased and farmed by Del Monte Fresh Produce, the camp consists of about 120 cottages that are home to 200 pineapple workers and their families. The faintly sweet smell of the golden fruit mingles with the crisp air of the Wai‘anae Mountains. Red dirt stains everything—the board-and-batten exterior of the camp gymnasium, the undersides of workers’ pickup trucks, the rows of post-office boxes outside the camp store selling beer and canned goods.

In less than two years, this could all be gone. In February, Del Monte announced that it would stop producing pineapple in Hawai‘i in 2008. The company, the state’s oldest and largest pineapple plantation, said it was too expensive to continue production in the Islands, that it would be cheaper to buy pineapples in the open market than to grow, market and distribute them here.

Del Monte informed its 600 employees that they would be laid off in phases. Planters, who planted the company’s last crop less than three weeks later, were the first to go. In October, irrigators and workers who package pineapple slices got their notice.

“It was a punch in the stomach,” says Bob Bevacqua, a field superintendent who was laid off soon after the announcement. “We want to keep pineapple alive in Hawai‘i, so it was a very sad thing.”

Only 50 workers have left since the big announcement, including those who were laid off or chose to retire or who found other jobs, according to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, which represents employees. Most workers plan to stay at the plantation until it closes or until they are permanently laid off. Workers who don’t wait until they receive their official 60-day notice sacrifice their severance pay, equivalent to nine days of work for every year they were employed—a substantial amount, considering the average length of employment at Del Monte is between 20 and 25 years.

The 200 workers who live in Kunia Camp could lose their homes, in addition to their jobs. Most are immigrants from the Philippines who have worked at the plantation and lived at the camp since arriving in Hawai‘i. Nearly all have multiple dependents living with them—spouses, parents, siblings, children and grandchildren—meaning Kunia Camp’s closure would leave entire families without homes.

Del Monte’s exit from Hawai‘i may have been long in coming. The company started in Hawai‘i more than a century ago, soon after “Pineapple King” James Dole planted his first 61 acres in Wahiaw-a. Del Monte began in 1902 as a small farm owned by the Eames family, one of several farms scattered throughout central O‘ahu. At its peak in the late 1950s, Hawai‘i produced 80 percent of the world’s pineapple. Today, it provides only 2 percent—overtaken by such countries as Thailand, the Philippines and Brazil. When Del Monte leaves Hawai‘i, only two major pineapple plantations will remain—Maui Land & Pine and Dole Foods in Wahiawa.

“Maui Pine doesn’t have a camp, Dole doesn’t have a camp—Del Monte is the last real plantation camp in Hawai‘i that I know of,” says ILWU president Fred Galdones. February’s announcement means a lot more than the end of Hawai‘i’s oldest agricultural institution.

It means the death of “a whole different culture, a whole different lifestyle,” Galdones says. “As you walk through the camp, you realize that this is our heritage. It’s how a lot of us started in Hawai‘i. It’s amazing to think that all of it could be gone.”

Some Del Monte workers worry about finding other jobs. Others who live on the plantation wonder where their families will go if the camp is demolished. A few are actually glad to be moving on.

Here are the stories of six of those pineapple workers.

Juanito Omnes

The Omnes family rarely locks its front-porch door—a habit of most Kunia Camp residents, but one that’s especially practical when 12 people live in the same house. The squeak and clank of the screen door swinging open and closed is as common as the crowing of roosters outside.

Juanito, whose thick head of black hair makes him look at least 15 years younger than his 56 years, pads across the linoleum floor of the living room in house slippers, wearing a black tank top tucked neatly into slacks. In the kitchen, his wife, Myrna, cooks pork adobo on the stove for her daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter who are already sitting at the dining table. Five of their children and three of their grandchildren should be home soon, too—most of them when the Roberts Hawai‘i school bus drops them off at the camp.

Truck driver Juanito Omnes, pictured with wife Myrna and granddaughters Monica and Arlyn. If the camp closes, Juanito has no idea what kind of home he can afford for their six children and four grandchildren now living with them.

The family has lived at Kunia Camp since 1990, when Juanito and Myrna arrived from Laoag City in the Philippines. Juanito’s mother was already working on the plantation and petitioned for her son to immigrate—a recruiting method encouraged by Del Monte until the early ’90s.

Workers can earn anywhere between $11.17 and $20.04 an hour, based on the skills their jobs require. Field workers, including those who pick pineapples by hand, make the least, although their jobs are physically the toughest. Still, they know that $11 is more than most workers without high school diplomas and limited English skills would make elsewhere in Hawai‘i.

“Driving truck not really hard now, but suffer so much dust,” says Juanito. “You drive over there, dust get in your eyes, in your nose, even though you wear handkerchief. But I like my job. It allowed me to raise my family.”

Juanito knew even before the company said it would close down that he couldn’t risk being unemployed. He already had a second job as a part-time truck driver at the airport, where Myrna cleans planes between flights.

“I work airport in the daytime, six to eight hours, get home at 1 o’clock and start the second job at Del Monte 5 o’clock,” says Juanito. In his 16 years at Del Monte, Juanito has never taken a real vacation (“I tell him!” Myrna insists. “Go Philippines, visit. But he no like take vacation, that one.”) He only takes days off for doctor visits or his children’s school activities.

Since February, Juanito and Myrna’s biggest worry has been their home. They now pay $300 in monthly rent. If they lost it, they don’t know where they would go.

They’ve put their trust in the Kunia Camp Association, the organization that residents formed to fight to stay in their homes. Workers elected Brandon Bajo-Daniel to be their president. He was a natural choice—a popular, Moloka‘i-born ILWU business agent who once worked as a sprayer at Del Monte. His father was also a union rep and had worked on the plantation before him; his mother still lives there.

Talks between the association, Del Monte and Campbell Estate, which owns all of the pineapple land, have been going on since February. Del Monte charges workers between $176 and $300 in rent per month; retirees pay between $700 and $850. The association wants to buy the camp from Campbell Estate and create a co-op for tenants. It also wants Del Monte to kick in some money to help residents maintain their water and sewage infrastructure. But talks among the three parties have grown more difficult since October, when Del Monte’s general manager left Hawai‘i, forcing the association to correspond with corporate reps at the company’s Florida headquarters.

Back in February, Del Monte’s closing inspired front-page newspaper stories (Juanito’s 12-year-old son was quoted in one of those articles, and a TV reporter even came to their home) and a flurry of political proposals at the state Legislature and City Council. Most of them failed. Camp residents haven’t seen any newscasters or politicians out here in months.

“If I go outside, I cannot find a house like this, cannot afford,” Juanito says. “The house, not that nice, but I love it. I raise my kids here. Get lots of memories here.”

Kunia Camp sometimes reminds Juanito of the Philippines. Nearly all of its residents are from his home country. They yell Ilocano greetings out of their car windows as they drive past each other on the camp’s unpaved roads. Their homes are divided only by plots of grass and red dirt—no fences or driveways. Many residents grow much of what they eat—bittermelon, tomatoes and cassava—and rarely drive any farther east than Mililani.

On holidays, Juanito and his family barbecue in their yard and sing karaoke in their living room. “I like this community,” he says. “Everybody know each other. No one complain if you cook and get any kine smell. Get plenty parties at the gym, every weekend almost—graduation, birthday, baptismal. You invite the whole camp.”

Margarita Gabbac & Magdalena Agbayani

By 5:15 a.m., Margarita Gabbac is already at work. The 51-year-old harvester luna takes the day’s order from her boss, about 15 minutes before one of her crewmembers, 64-year-old truck driver Magdalena Agbayani, arrives.

Margarita is good at being a harvester luna, the highest-paid position in the harvesting department, which is ironic, considering she never wanted to work there in the first place. When she came to Hawai‘i from the Philippines in the early ’70s, she worked as a seamstress.

“My father no like me work here, because hard in the field,” Margarita says. “But my husband came to work here, so I force myself to work Del Monte. Get more pay and benefits.” She worked as a harvester, estimator and truck driver before becoming a luna.

Magdalena emigrated from the Philippines in 1969, when her husband, who already worked at Del Monte, petitioned for her immigration. “I was 24, and I started with $1.60 per hour,” she says. “I plant pineapple, then stripping, harvesting, weeding, loader and then I work quality control. I apply for truck driver about seven years ago.”

Although truck driver Magdalena Agbayani and harvester luna Margarita Gabbac have spent much of their lives on the plantation, they’re thankful they put their children through school so they would not have to follow in their footsteps.

Outside of work, the women are close friends. Margarita calls Magdalena manang, a Filipino term of respect. The two prayed together when Magdalena’s husband, now retired, was diagnosed with colon cancer. After a year of treatment and chemotherapy, her husband is better now. He can drive her to the station in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon. Magdalena wants to make sure he stays that way. She can’t retire anytime soon—her health insurance policy is much better than her husband’s Medicare plan, which would not have covered much of his $150,000 in medical bills.

Over the past year, Magdalena and Margarita have helped each other deal with Del Monte’s closing. Margarita clearly remembers the afternoon general manager Ed Littleton, standing on the loading dock of a truck shed, delivered the news to nearly 200 field workers. They’d just finished their shifts and were still dressed in long-sleeve cotton shirts, utility pants and wide-brimmed hats. Margarita had to translate Littleton’s words into Ilocano for the many workers who did not understand what he was saying.

“Lucky thing, I never had to go up to where he stand—I was crying already,” Margarita says. “Maybe I stand same place as him, I couldn’t speak, because then I could see all the people, all their faces.”

Gradually, more of Margarita’s friends have left the plantation, including some of her own crewmembers. “All the years we working in here, just like one big family,” she says. “Every time somebody leave, we cry. It’s just like you don’t want to work anymore.”

But the day after Del Monte’s announcement, Margarita and all of her crewmembers reported to the station at their regular start times, just like it was any other day, she says. Their lives revolve around their work.

The plantation operates almost every hour of the day. There are two main components, the field operations and the packing plant. Field sprayers start at 4 a.m.; another shift starts at 6 a.m. Pineapples get sprayed a lot, with fertilizers to make them grow, pesticides to protect them and plant growth hormones to trigger flowering. There are tractor drivers who plow the fields, field workers who can plant 7,000 pineapple tops in one shift and a weeding gang that clears out by hand what pesticides can’t prevent.

Pineapple is harvested year-round. There are two shifts of harvest crews, day and night. There are about 15 members in Margarita’s harvesting crew—eight field workers, four loaders and two or three drivers. Because Del Monte sells only fresh, not canned, pineapple, workers harvest everything by hand to prevent damage. Harvesters walk behind the truck, picking pineapples from two rows at a time and placing them on the conveyor belt of the boom. Loaders on the truck place fruit, crown down, into three even layers in the crate. When the crate is full, the driver returns to the station and a second driver resumes with an empty crate. At the packing shed, the fruit is rinsed, sorted and packed into cardboard boxes.

Margarita’s group can harvest 25 crates—each of which can hold 2.3 tons of pineapple—in one shift. But since February, her crew has brought in as little as three crates, a result of the company reducing how much land it harvests, she says.

“We go back and forth over the place we are harvesting, and you think, how can they pay for us? How can they make a profit?” Margarita says. “That’s why I say, only God is in control right now. I pray that us who are left behind will make still eight hours a day.”

The limbo they now live in makes the two women glad that their kids never followed in their footsteps. Magdalena’s children all have stable jobs—her oldest son is a Navy officer, two of her daughters and another son work for the government and her youngest daughter works at Longs Drugs.

Margarita’s son is an electronic technician. One of her daughters is a secretary downtown, and the other is in med school. “I thank God I send my kids to school,” Margarita says. “Though we working in the field, we encourage the children to go school. So my three children, I no worry about them.”

Gregoria Padilla, a pineapple packer for the past 25 years, now takes high school equivalency classes offered to Del Monte workers. The 56-year-old, who only has a sixth-grade education, is an exception among the 700 workers who will lose their jobs by 2008. At press time, fewer than 50 employees had enrolled in the GED program or in other free training classes offered at Leeward Community College. “There are so many things I’ve learned, and I’m so amazed,” Gregoria says. “There is so much I didn’t know.”

Darlene Palmerton and Boyd Isnec

For a brighter glimpse of what Kunia Camp’s future could look like, take a look at Poamoho Camp, about five miles north of Kunia, just past Schofield Barracks. Tourists zip right by the community on their way to the North Shore, but the camp was once as much a living piece of O‘ahu’s plantation history as Kunia Camp.

A cluster of 63 cottages encircles the neighborhood park, whose few features include a basketball court with cracked wooden backboards and torn nets. Like Kunia, Poamoho homes have no driveways, people park on their front lawns.

Take away the modern cars, and Poamoho looks like it did 50 years ago. Darlene Palmerton and Boyd Isnec are childhood friends who have lived at the camp most of their lives. Her family moved here from Kunia Camp when she was 10; he was born here. Now both 49, they work at Del Monte—Darlene as an inventory clerk, Boyd as a welder.

They remember the corner store that sold candy and soda at the camp entrance, now an empty asphalt lot. They remember the pool hall that used to be next to the camp clubhouse and the sham-battle games at the park, where almost all the neighborhood kids would turn out.

“My kids don’t play the way I did, probably because they have electronic games,” says Boyd. “Before, we didn’t have all that stuff, so we all played together. But we’re still a close, tight-knit community.”

Residents at Poamoho know what Kunia Camp workers are going through—they experienced the same worry and uncertainty nearly three years ago. Poamoho sits on 34 acres that were once part of 2,200 acres farmed by Del Monte, under a lease with the George Galbraith Trust. Until 2004, the lands around the camp were a sea of pineapple, like the lands that now surround Kunia Camp. This was where the popular Del Monte Variety Garden stood, once a frequent stop for tour buses.

Inventory clerk Darlene Palmerton and welder Boyd Isnec represent the third and second generations of their families, respectively, to work at Del Monte.

In early 2004, Del Monte decided not to renew its lease with the Galbraith Trust, saying the variety of pineapple in the area was no longer in demand. Del Monte also told Poa-moho residents that they would have to vacate by June of that year, as it would need to demolish their houses—and the pineapples surrounding them—under the terms of the lease. A few months later, bulldozers cleared most of the lands, including the famous pineapple garden.

“They mailed us our eviction notices,” Darlene says. “There were retirees who didn’t know what was going on, so the first thing Boyd did was walk around the camp, telling people don’t worry. The union stepped in, and we went to the meetings. We had to ask legislators for help.”

While the future of Kunia Camp is unclear, Poamoho already has its happy ending. “We’ve been saved,” Darlene says. In the fall of 2004, local developer Peter Savio bought 93 acres of Galbraith Trust land, including the Poamoho Camp and its homes, with plans to sell the homes back to the residents at below-market rates.

That’s why many Poamoho residents weren’t shocked by Del Monte’s announcement this past February, even though they’d been told repeatedly by the company that it was in Hawai‘i “for the long haul.” Darlene and Boyd say they noticed major differences in the company since it changed ownership in 1996. That’s when the IAT Group Inc., a fruit producer based in the Cayman Islands, bought a majority stake in Fresh Del Monte Produce. Del Monte is now a multinational corporation, growing pineapple around the globe—including Costa Rica, the Philippines and Kenya—using methods it developed in Hawai‘i.

In recent years, Boyd says, the company sold off equipment and failed to make improvements to its Kunia facilities. It also contracted out positions that were reserved for full-time, permanent employees. “We knew something was gonna happen,” he says. “A lot of small things added up.”

The company was no longer the pineapple plantation to which he and Darlene—and their parents before them—had dedicated their entire careers. Boyd’s father worked for 44 years on the plantation. Darlene’s grandparents came as sakadas, or Filipino plantation laborers, in the 1920s. Today, she represents the third and final generation in her family to work at Del Monte.

No matter how workers feel about the company’s closing, there’s a persistent pride in the product they put out. “It’s sweeter and juicier than other pineapples,” Darlene says. “We have pride as a work force. We grow good pineapple.”

As skilled workers, both she and Boyd know they could find better-paying jobs outside of the plantation, but they still can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“I keep telling myself, ‘I’m losing my job, I’m losing my job,’ but it seems so far off,” Darlene says. “We work every day—that’s what we concentrate on. All of us do the best we can every day. But in the back of our minds, we know we’re biding time. And time is running out.”