Looks like cane-burning season is coming up fast, and that means many Maui residents found a nice “Dear Neighbor” letter in their mailboxes this weekend.
“2014 was a challenging year for our operations,” states the Mar. 6, 2015 letter, signed by Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (HC&S) General Manager Rick Volner, Jr.. “Wet weather throughout the year created difficult harvesting conditions and delays which hindered sugar production. HC&S produced just over 162,000 tons of sugar, the lowest annual production since 2009… HC&S’s financial losses might have been greater if not for the perseverance and dedication of our 750 employees.”
Boo hoo. Maui gets a little sorely needed rain, and HC&S (a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin) wants sympathy because it couldn’t burn as much cane in the fields as it would have liked.
Here’s some historical context, taken from Carol A. MacLennan’s 2014 book Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai‘i. Today, 750 HC&S employees grow, harvest and process sugar on 36,000 acres of Maui. A century ago, sugar grew more than 200,000 acres across the state, employing more than 43,000 people. Today’s output of 162,000 tons is nothing compared to the more than 500,000 tons produced in 1910 (or the nearly million tons of sugar produced in 1940, for that matter).
Today, HC&S is just a fragment of Hawaii’s old sugar empire. It’s a fact caused not by any change in the weather, but by the rise of tourism land development as the state’s dominant economic engines. And new health trends, most recently highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO), threaten to reduce what’s left of Big Sugar’s hold over Maui even further.
In his Mar. 6 letter, Volner acknowledged this trend in a vague, self-serving way. “In 2014, HC&S had the honor of the being the presenting sponsor for the Heart Association’s Maui Heart Walk,” states the letter. “Our employees walked alongside our fellow community members to raise over $123,000 for cardiovascular health education, the highest amount of funds ever raised for the Maui Heart Walk.”
While certainly an honorable achievement, HC&S quite possibly could have done even more good for the world’s collective cardiovascular health by simply going out of business.
“The U.N. health agency says the world is eating too much sugar and people should slash their intake to just six to 12 teaspoons per day–an amount that could be exceeded with a single can of soda,” the Associated Press reported on Mar. 5. “Experts have long railed about the dangers of sugar and studies suggest that people who eat large amounts of the sweet stuff are at higher risk of dying prematurely from heart problems, diabetes and cancer, among other conditions.”
Just something to think about the next time you see a big cloud of cane smoke in the skies over Central Maui.
Photo of HC&S’ sugar mill in Pu’unene: Tim Plank/Wikimedia Commons