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Geo-Joint: The End of Hawaiian Sugar

Posted on December 20 2016

The intrepid canoe sailors who first came to the shores of Hawaii brought all the foodstuffs they had eaten in their native islands: pigs, chickens, taro, sweet potato, and among other plants, sugarcane. Sugarcane was valued for its sweetness and high caloric content, but production was done on a small level, along with other crops. The prominence of sugarcane in Hawaii came after others “discovered” the islands. Captain James Cook, who was probably the first European explorer to arrive, reported seeing fields of sugarcane in 1778. But these were pretty small operations given the limited needs of the island population. The natives had never engaged in the making of sugar crystals but simply chewed the cane for its sweet juice. As Europeans came to the islands and stayed, some saw the economic possibilities of sugar production.

Sugarcane is well-suited to Hawaii’s temperature and rainfall levels. It takes 250 gallons of water to produce a pound of sugar, and the copious rains brought by the trade winds delivered the needed moisture. Unlike sugar production in other warm areas of the U.S., Hawaii’s elevated temperatures were year-round, so tiny Hawaii’s acreage could outstrip the production in mainland America’s southern states, where winters interrupted the growing season. The first attempt at commercial sugar production in Hawaii was in 1825, on Oahu. It failed after a couple of years, but a subsequent effort on Kauai ten years later saw 50 acres of sugarcane become a successful crop.

Politics was soon to intrude upon Hawaii in a big way, as populations and economics forced a big decision. By the late 1840s, three-quarters of native Hawaiians had been wiped out, mostly by the diseases brought from the outside world by white explorers and settlers. Those few remaining were taking up residence in the growing coastal towns where commerce allowed them a chance to survive in a world now run on a cash economy. Land, which had traditionally been overseen by chiefs and kings, fell into disuse and abandonment, and the Hawaiian rulers though land-rich, were cash-poor. In 1848 a decree called the Great Mahele brought a new system to land use. The king would retain a portion, as did the many chiefs, and there was an allotment of land divided up for families who agreed to work it, but the important new category of land was that which could be sold to foreigners living in Hawaii. With that provision, wealthy agricultural entrepreneurs paid cash to the underfunded Hawaiians and moved into the sugar business.

The sugar acreage grew from that paltry 50 acres in 1835 to 100,000 acres in 1900. Sadly, the native forests of Hawaii fell as lands were cleared for planting, or to provide wood for the sugar mill operations. Further altering Hawaii’s world, the mills and fields provided many jobs. Though they involved hard, hot work, there were plenty willing to give it a try. But the population of strong backs in Hawaii was insufficient for all the labor that was needed, and many Hawaiians, who preferred a subsistence lifestyle rather than heavy labor for someone else’s profit, began to demand better wages and working conditions if they were to continue in the cane fields. The wealthy sugar plantation owners decided to look elsewhere for their increasing labor needs. Immigrants were sought, and they came. Many tens of thousands of Chinese and Japanese men arrived to work the canefields, followed by Filipinos and others. Their numbers altered the ethnic mix of the islands ever after. Native Hawaiians who had obtained plots to farm for various crops were not always successful and had to sell off their land, and in many other cases were simply cheated out of it by barely legal methods advantageous to better-educated bankers. Throughout this upheaval in the social order, sugar continued to prosper. The Civil War even gave a boost to the market because the only other U.S. production area was in the South, which was a war zone in the middle 1860s. Lucrative tariff deals between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the U.S. later brought even more economic incentive. And when the U.S. seized Hawaii as its own territory, landowners felt more secure and further increased their investments in growing sugarcane.

By 1931, when Hawaiian sugar hit its peak, more than a million tons of the sweet crystals were produced, employing 50,000 people. In the 1970s, there were still 15 sugar plantations in Hawaii, and in 1980, Hawaii still provided fully one-tenth of America’s sugar wants on a mere 200,000 acres. But the industry was in continuous decline, with plantations closing one after the next, and blinking out entirely first on one island and then another. Travel to the islands by air became easier and cheaper through the 1950s, ’60s, and beyond, and the massive growth in tourism meant cane fields could be sold at handsome profit to developers hungry to build hotels and resorts to serve travelers. Sugar was traveling too—increasingly arriving in mainland U.S. from other regions such as South and Central America and Southeast Asia, where it could be produced more cheaply. In addition, corn syrup began to replace cane sugar as a preferred sweetener in foods from sodas to candy bars to, well, just about everything. In 1995, Hawaii had less than half its 1931 peak production, and a year later there were only five active cane plantations. Hawaiian sugar was steadily disappearing.

Finally, it came down to Maui, where a few days ago, the cane mill owned by Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar became the last sugar operation in the islands to close down. It will put 675 workers out of a job, though it is hoped different agricultural work will emerge on the land many of them have worked for decades. The exodus from sugar has created a lot of open land where guinea grass and weeds can take over and become a huge fire threat. Efforts are being made in many places to replace sugar with fruit trees, produce, or other crops that will preserve the open space and ag jobs. If not, many former cane fields will grow housing, resorts, golf courses, and shopping centers—things that diminish the green countryside of rural Hawaii, turning more of paradise into a parking lot.

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