Puunene, Maui >>
Mark Lopes watched as the flame caught the dry blades of cane. At 4 a.m. Thursday in a field below Omaopio on Maui, the first official cane fire of the 144th Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. harvest roared to life. Nathan Carrillo slowly drove along the perimeter of the field, holding the torch and touching it to the leaves. The fire is engineered to burn in to the middle of the field, and then burn itself out. Lopes watched to make sure.
Seeing a cane fire up close at night is a powerful experience. It is terrifying — huge and hotter than you would imagine.
Your eyes feel dry and you worry your lashes will singe. But it is also dazzlingly beautiful and hypnotic, the way the flames seem as sentient as spirits as they race into the night.
Of all the foes — and there are many — of HC&S on Maui, perhaps the loudest have been those who oppose cane burning, a step during harvesting to burn off excess leaves and chaff before sending the stalks to the mill to be processed into raw sugar.
The smoke from the cane fires can cause breathing problems for those with certain health conditions, and even people who aren’t physically bothered by the smoke are irked by the smell on their line-dried clothing or the haze in the air.
But that will end forever in December when the sugar plantation closes. For those whose lives have been so closely tied to sugar, this last harvest is beautiful in its historic significance and terrifying because it means a step closer to the unknown.
IN THE FIELDS
Lopes, the manager of harvesting operations, has worked at HC&S for 33 years. On days when a burn is scheduled, he wakes up before 3 a.m. to check weather readings. He’s the one who gives the OK to start the fire.
In some ways, it feels like a family business to him. His father worked for the plantation for 47 years. When Lopes first started in 1982, he was trained by his dad.
Lopes raised his own son as a single father, juggling his all-hours job with diaper changing and school pickups.
“When my son was little, if I had to fight a fire at night, he would come with me. No choice. I would bundle him up and say, ‘Let’s go.’ He would stay in the truck while I worked. He grew up in the plantation life.”
Lopes’ son, who is now 23, went through the apprenticeship program at HC&S and is a journeyman mechanic.
“That was good,” Lopes said. “He got job training and medical benefits.” Once his son was on his own, Lopes put himself through college and earned a business degree through the University of Phoenix.
Pictures of his 2-year-old granddaughter, Hazel, in her rodeo princess crown are pinned to his wall alongside charts and maps. Hazel will grow up around the horses that the Lopes family loves, but she will miss out on a sugar plantation childhood.
“This shutdown has been a shocker,” Lopes said. Like many at HC&S, he is focused on the work at hand, getting through nine and a half months of harvesting.
“After that, I don’t know,” Lopes said, quiet for a moment before making a joke to change the tone of the conversation. “My modeling career is gone. Maybe I can pose for a calendar. Maybe I can be November, for Thanksgiving.”
Elmer Magbual was 19 when he started working at HC&S in 1980. He drives one of the massive trucks that haul cane from the field to the factory. If the field is far from the Puunene factory, he might make one round-trip an hour, up to 12 loads in 12 hours. If the field is nearby, he can make three round-trips an hour. It’s almost a race between the harvesting and the grinding. When the factory is cranking at top speed, nobody wants to run out of cane for it to grind.
“Gotta work fast to keep feeding the mill,” Magbual said.
At 54, he’s at a tough age to start looking for a new job. He jokes about it, calling himself “old” and saying that if he can’t pay the mortgage, his wife will surely leave, but the laughter is a way to cope with all he and his co-workers face.
“I just never thought this mill would close down,” he said.
AT THE FACTORY
When the trucks get to the factory, the cane is unloaded onto a belt where it is carried up into the mill. The old metal buildings are teeming with activity. Water flows through channels under floor grates. Steam hisses out through pipes. The sound is overwhelming. It’s hard to tell if the walls are vibrating because of the movement of the huge gears or because of the noise.
Over the history of sugar in Hawaii, plantations have been largely a man’s world. At the Puunene factory, two of the most important jobs are held by women. Anna Skrobecki oversees factory operations. Jennifer McDonald, a Stanford University graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, runs the power plant.
McDonald moved to Maui from California after her college internship specifically so she could work in an industrial setting. She is credited with increasing reliability, standardizing practices and decreasing the plantation’s use of fossil fuel. Still, many of the basic processes are the same as when they were first designed 150 years ago, sensible and elegant.
THE GOOD FIGHT
Chris Benjamin, CEO and president of parent company Alexander & Baldwin, served as HC&S plantation manager for two years starting in 2009. It was a tough time. That year, the company lost roughly $30 million.
“And here comes the CFO from Honolulu to run the plantation,” Benjamin said. “The assumption would be that I was here to close it down.”
Instead, he instituted changes to try to make the operation more sustainable. “We didn’t view closing the plantation as inevitable, but we all knew it was an uphill battle. We did fight as hard as we could.”
Benjamin credits the work ethic and dedication of the HC&S employees for keeping operations going as long as they have. “This was a quality of people that I had never seen before.”
That year, despite the dire situation at HC&S, Benjamin said employee donations to United Way increased by 20 percent with 99 percent participation. The workers gave more money per employee than any other company on Maui.
In the offseason that year, work teams “basically rebuilt the mill,” Benjamin said. The next year, production went up by 40 percent.
But it wasn’t enough to save sugar.
“If sugar had gone to 40 cents a pound … ” Benjamin said. But right now, sugar is about 24 cents a pound, about the same price it was in the 1980s.
“We fought the good fight,” Benjamin said.
Welding supervisor Gerard Cambra warned that he might get emotional. He has worked at HC&S for 34 years, and though he’s a tough guy with the strong hands of a man who can pull apart and fix just about anything, his heart is aching.
“Many times, I’ll be doing something I’ve done for years, but then I realize it’s the last time I’ll ever do this. I end up dropping a tear, knowing I’ll probably never do it again.”
HC&S has always felt like home to him. His father had worked for the plantation his entire life.
“My father used to take us out in the fields in the company truck when we were kids. Me and my brother would be catching fish in the ditch while he was adjusting the water.”
Cambra started in 1982 as a sheet metal apprentice, then moved up to journeyman, then lead man before finally becoming a full-time supervisor 10 years ago. Most of the people he started with moved on to other jobs at other companies, but Cambra stayed.
“I just had a connection to HC&S,” he said. “I always felt comfortable here. I felt needed. The pay was always fair. I never felt like leaving.”
He manages a crew of 18 welders. Eight years ago, he had 34 on his crew. HC&S tried many things to keep going, including doing more with less.
“The bigger the challenge, the more I get into it,” he said. “There have been jobs we didn’t even know how to start, but we found a way.”
During the offseason, when repairs are done to the mill, the announcement was made about the closure. Cambra worried how that would affect his team’s work.
“Everyone could easily say, ‘It’s the last year, I’m gonna lose my job, so the heck with it.’ But nobody said that,” Cambra said. “What really impressed me was when I gave them a job, if they saw something else out there that needed to be repaired, they came back and told me about it. They didn’t just let it go because it’s the last year. That’s when I really knew that they were committed.”
When he talks about the work, Cambra is composed, but he fights tears when he tries to describe what the work has meant to the people he loves — the men he supervises, his father before him, and his four sons.
“My boys, they were in 4-H programs raising livestock. Every year, I go to the fair and I see HC&S and A&B supporting the program, supporting the kids, supporting my boys.”
At this point, his tears are falling and he wipes a calloused hand down his face.
“I love this company. In a lot of ways, it’s my company. I treat it like it’s my own.”
Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or email@example.com.