And now for some of the most extraordinary news I’ve seen in the last decade: Today Alexander & Baldwin (A&B) announced that it’s getting out of the sugar business at the end of this year. With the end of the 2016 harvest, the company will close the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) mill and move towards what the company’s calling a “diversified agricultural model.”
That’s right. No more cane burning. Hawaii’s sugar era officially ends in 2016. HC&S’ financial losses over the last couple of years were apparently unsustainable.
“A&B’s roots literally began with the planting of sugar cane on 570 acres in Makawao, Maui, 145 years ago,” said Stanley M. Kuriyama, A&B executive chairman, in the Jan. 6 A&B press release. “Much of the state’s population would not be in Hawaii today, myself included, if our grandparents or great-grandparents had not had the opportunity to work on the sugar plantations. A&B has demonstrated incredible support for HC&S over these many years, keeping our operation running for 16 years after the last sugar company on Maui closed its doors. We have made every effort to avoid having to take this action. However, the roughly $30 million Agribusiness operating loss we expect to incur in 2015, and the forecast for continued significant losses, clearly are not sustainable, and we must now move forward with a new concept for our lands that allows us to keep them in productive agricultural use.”
The A&B press release states that “no immediate layoffs will result from today’s announcement,” and that “half of the 675 employees will be retained through the end of the sugar harvest, which is expected to be completed late in 2016.”
Instead of sugar, the press release mentions three “test projects” that may replace sugar on HC&S’ 36,000 acres:
• Energy crops: Building upon its extensive experience with crop-to-energy production, HC&S has initiated crop trials to evaluate potential sources of feedstock for anaerobic conversion to biogas. This on-farm testing currently is being expanded from plot to field-scale and HC&S has entered into a confidential memorandum of understanding with local and national partners to explore market opportunities for biogas. HC&S also is assessing the potential of cultivating purpose-grown oilseed crops for biodiesel production and has entered into preliminary, but confidential, discussions with other bioenergy industry players to explore additional crop-to-energy opportunities.
• Support for the local cattle industry: The Company is exploring the costs and benefits of irrigated pasture to support the production of grass-finished beef for the local market. HC&S has converted a test site of former sugar land to cultivated pasture and is working with Maui Cattle Company to conduct a grass-finishing pasture trial in 2016. High-quality grazing lands could enable Maui’s cattle ranchers to expand their herds and keep more cattle in Hawaii for finishing on grass.
• Food crops/Agriculture park: A&B plans to establish an agriculture park on former sugar lands in order to provide opportunities for farmers to access these agricultural lands and support the cultivation of food crops on Maui. HC&S employees will be given preference to lease lots from the company to start their own farming operations.
In the A&B press release, company President and CEO Christopher J. Benjamin called this “a sad day for A&B,” but others–notably those Maui activists who’ve grown up with cane smoke and have spent years, even decades, fighting it–see it in very different terms.
“Today represents a new start for agriculture here on Maui,” said Terez Amato, a long-time cane-burning opponent who ran for the state Senate seat representing South Maui in 2014. “With the news that HC&S will be transitioning to other crops and bringing an end to the antiquated process of cane burning, our workers and our community will be able to come together to forge new avenues of health and prosperity for our island! This is an amazing, and unprecedented, opportunity for Maui County. I applaud HC&S and Alexander & Baldwin for making this bold change towards enhancing Maui not only for today, but as a home for our children tomorrow. Personally, as a North Kihei mother of children who have been hospitalized after bad burns, I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing it makes me feel that after this year not one more single child will ever again make a cane smoke induced asthma attack trip to the emergency room! My son will literally breathe easier knowing that his health comes before corporate profit. Many of us have worked tirelessly to provide this opportunity and to stand up for the rights of the people of Maui. Let us never forget that we have a right to health, clean air, clean water and food, and affordable housing. We recognize and thank HC&S and A&B for seizing the opportunity and at last acting in the interest of their workers and indeed the entire affected community. As a citizen advocate I want to assure the community that will continue working for the people on these important issues.”
Obviously we’ll have more to report on this major development, both over the week and the rest of 2016.
Photo of the HC&S mill in Puunene: Dustin Plank/Wikimedia Commons