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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

CROSSROADS: The End of the Hawaiian Sugar Industry

The industry most responsible for making Hawaii what it is today is sugar.  I might add that I would not be what I am were it not for sugar.

When I was a junior at Stanford, I thought, wouldn't it be nice if I could get a summer job back in Hawaii.  I can't remember the details anymore, but in 1961 C. Brewer, then the oldest company in the state, accepted my application and sent me to live in Hilo, Hawaii, where I worked for their sugar analysis laboratory.  I was housed at a dormitory next to the Little League Baseball field.  That summer, this Hilo team went all the way to Williamsport, but, even though we were a state by then, represented the Pacific International bracket.  They got edged, 3-2, by El Cajon of California, which went on to win the World Championship.

Back at Stanford for my senior year, Congress authorized President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, and the hot topic on campus was to be in that first class of 1962.  Turns out that several of my close friends applied.  I think it was the FBI that carried out the background checks, and I became a key individual partially responsible for getting them into the Corps.  My five closest Stanford classmates are Peace Corps veterans, and we still get together almost yearly.  Here to the left are Jim, top Bill and bottom Sue, when we celebrated our 50th reunion in Napa at the home of Cathy, right.

They ended up in the Philippines, Ivory Coast and other developing areas of the world, only earning $99/month and living in a state of ordeal for two years.  That anticipation and subsequent guilt convinced me that I had to also do something sacrificial.  So my solution was to help Hawaii's dying sugar industry for $500/month.  I thus returned to the sugar industry with my first job as process engineer for the Hutchison Sugar Company and lived in Naalehu, the southernmost community in the USA.  No television nor radio.  I shared a tiny office with Dante Carpenter, who went on to become Mayor of the island, State Senator and Chairman of the Democratic Party.  We remain close friends.

This was the toughest job I ever had, by far.  I worked from 6AM to 4PM for 19 straight days, then two days off. I was in my early 20's, and I was in charge of mostly Japanese supervisors double my age with Filipino factory workers.  I got night calls when anything broke down.  I still flinch when the phone rings at night.  Life was grimy and my starched khaki shirt and pants were grimy by days end. There was a bar across the street where they only served Budweiser beer and Thunderbird wine.  It is here that my drinking career began.  Cockroach infested, steamy hot, and fraught with unexpected vicissitudes, escaping the industry was like leaving a battle zone.  

The plantation manager, Bill Baldwin, set up a blind date in September of 1962 with Pearl, who was a nurse in the next town, Pahala.  We were married in December of that year.  Seventeen years later, Bill and I shared the same office working for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga.  He was Sparky's Sugar Man.  Bill was the most influential person in my life.

After I spent a short period in the Army Reserve, C. Brewer sent us to the Kilauea Sugar Company on Kauai.  We lived in a trainee cottage, where our backyard was the Slippery Slide of South Pacific fame.  Remarkably, if you clicked on that clip, France Nuyen in the film looks just like Pearl, here with our dog Pepper at that waterfall.

This was the plantation where a very old man came up to me one day after reading a newsletter reporting on my presence and indicated that my grandfather's grave was located up on the hill close by the sugar factory.  Forty years later I began my roots search entitled Search for Kenjiro's Grandmothers  sparked by this gravestone in Kilauea.  To the right, Misa, son in law of man who found this gravestone.

Well, so much for my history.  Sugar was sinking when I left half a century ago, but I did partially blame myself for the inability to save Kilauea and Hutch.  Both closed their factories within five years of my departure.  If Pearl had gotten pregnant in any one of those two locations, I might still be living in Naalehu or Kilauea. As it was, Manager Bill Baldwin talked the officials at C. Brewer to send me to graduate school, which will be my next crossroad.

The Hawaiian Sugar Industry began in 1802 on Lanai, although the first actual plantation started in Koloa, Kauai in 1835.  My father grew up in this town.  The industry imported 337,000 immigrants, mostly from the Orient and Philippines, but also Portugal, to serve as supervisors.  The sociological structure of Hawaii was established by sugar.  Their influence on politics resulted in The Great Mahele, which displaced Hawaiians from their land, gain  territorial status by overthrowing the Hawaiian Monarch and brought military bases. Their paternalistic society continued until the ILWU organized the workers, with a 79-day strike in 1946.  Hawaii after World War II shifted from Republican to Democratic leadership, mostly wrought by the sugar industry through their immigration success and cheap wages.

In 1959 the ethnic breakdown of Hawaii showed 32% Japanese and 30% Caucasian:

Actually, sugar reached peak production soon after I went to graduate school.

But the decline was precipitous.  There were 155 sugar cane farms in 1985.  Oahu lost Wailua Sugar Company in 1989,  the Big Island gave up two decades ago,  and Kauai in 2009.  In it's heyday, the largest sugar plantation, Hawaii Commercial and Sugar (HC&S), the final sugar company, begun 145 years ago by descendants of Protestant missionaries, last week announced it would phase out sugarcane farming on Maui this year.  Parent company Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) said they lost $30 million last year from this operation.  From 3,390 workers just at HC&S in 1949 down to 675, almost all will lose their jobs.

What now of the future?  With the demise of sugar on the Big Island, lands have been largely available for diversified agriculture, which has not exactly taken off.  Maui lands could well be too valuable to grow herbs, orchids and the like.  While I usually avoid the snarky sarcasms of David Shapiro, his Star Advertiser article entitled Like it or not, legalizing pot could be boon for local ag, makes sense to me.  Maui Wowie (actually a powerful hybrid marijuana strain also known as Maui Waui) could well become a major crop for Hawaii.  Clearly, the future of Hawaii depends on pot and the Blue Revolution.

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