Everyone had a good Easter weekend, right? Didn’t eat too much chocolate, or get too much sun? Good and good. Me, didn’t do much besides hang out, visit some friends and relax. It was very chill, and part of the general happiness I felt was probably due to a very nice letter I received from Rick W. Volner, Jr., the General Manager of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S).
“Dear neighbor,” it began (all my closest friends and relatives call me “neighbor”). “With the start of the harvesting season, the HC&S Pu’unene mill will return to life, and you will begin to see our sugar cane harvesting and planting equipment in the fields and on the plantation roads once again.”
Isn’t that just precious? The mill’s coming back to life! And you know what that means: icky gray-brown smoke from big sugar cane fires pouring into the morning sky, depositing ash, soot and all kinds of throat-scratching particulates for us to inhale. Of course, Volner apparently doesn’t think these things are much of a problem. In fact, he’s under the impression that we all love his company’s sugar cane burning.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank you, in advance, for your support of our farming operations on Maui, this being our 140th harvest season,” he wrote (Volner thanks people for supporting his company twice in the letter). “We could not fulfill our commitment to agriculture, to our employees, and to the community without your kokua. We know we must continue to be a good neighbor and earn that support.”
Isn’t that nice of him? He’s thanking me “in advance” for my “support.” Guess he must be a very busy man who’s just too busy running around general managing the mill to ask me (or any other “neighbor” around the island) how we actually, honestly feel about his company burning more than 35,000 acres around Central Maui every three years.
In the old days–I’m thinking the first 50 or so harvest seasons–the company was all-powerful, and could give a damn what residents thought of the filthy practice of burning sugar cane in the field before harvesting. But these days, popular opinion can be a real bitch for a big corporation, especially as online social networking tools make it easier for people to communicate their frustrations and allergic reactions to people across the globe.
It’s no longer enough for a company like HC&S to simply portray sugar cane farming as a done deal that no one on Maui can change. Though they’re still doing that: “Farming is a challenging business, and we are trying hard to reduce the impact of noise, dust and smoke, all of which are invariably part of the farming process,” Volner added in his letter, pretty nakedly implying that the the smoke and pollution caused by cane burning is an inevitable part of the “farming process.”
No, for a company like HC&S to survive, they have to get out front of the social network, perhaps even create one of their own, to show the people who live and work on Maui that the company is just another caring, helpful “neighbor.” Not only does Volner ask in his letter that people visit the company’s website (hcsugar.com) but he also encourages them to sign up for their new cane burning “notification tool” Nixle by texting the word “sugar” to 888777.
Now that is helpful! For the first time, residents can find out there’s going to be a burn before it happens–before it wrecks havoc on their sinuses–and then…. what? Get an extra box of tissue at the store? Pack a ventilator before driving off to work? Fly to Oahu until the smoke clears?
Don’t worry–Volner isn’t looking for applause. Just the satisfaction of knowing that he’s helped out his neighbors.
“We are determined to keep our 36,000 acres in green cultivation and our family of 800 workers employed,” he wrote at the close of the letter. “Please know that our focus continues to be on the long-term, always with Maui and our neighbors’ best interests at heart.”
Photo: Rob and Stephanie Levy/Wikimedia Commons
About Anthony Pignataro
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He started work as MauiTime's Editor in 2003, took a couple years off starting in 2008, then returned to the staff in 2011. He's the author of "Stealing Cars With The Pros," a 2013 collection of his journalism and the Maui novels "Small Island" (2011) and "The Dead Season" (2012)–all of which were published by Event Horizon Press. In 2014, his one-act play "War Stories" won second place in the Maui Fringe Festival.