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Last sugar plantation in Hawaii to close this year

  • STAR-ADVERTISER/ AUG. 1, 2013

    Benjamin Garduque sprays pesticides in the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) sugar cane field on Maui.

  • STAR-ADVERTISER/ AUG. 1, 2013

    Benjamin Garduque sprays pesticides in the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) sugar cane field on Maui.

Future plans for HC&S land (Premium content)

Hawaii’s last sugar plantation will wind down by the end of this year, its owner announced today.

Alexander & Baldwin Inc. said it will phase out sugarcane farming on Maui at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. over the next 12 months and transition the 36,000-acre farm to a diversified crop model.

A&B said many employees will be laid off starting in March as their specific functions are completed, and that about half of the 675 HC&S workers will be retained through the end of the last harvest late this year.

Company leaders said the decision was reached with “great regret” and was based partly on HC&S losing $30 million last year.

“This is a sad day for A&B,” Chris Benjamin, A&B’s president and chief executive officer who ran HC&S as its general manager from 2009 to 2011, said in a statement.

Alexander & Baldwin was founded by sugar-growing descendants of Protestant missionaries 145 years ago. Today, much of its business focuses on real estate.

Sugar and pineapple plantations run by big landowners once dominated Hawaii’s economy. Sugar in particular took off after 1876 when Hawaii, which was still a monarchy at the time, won the ability to export the commodity to the United States duty-free.

Plantation owners later played a prominent role in running Hawaii after the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Plantations remained the islands’ economic engine until the launch of passenger jet travel shortened the length of flights from the West Coast and triggered a tourism boom.

The plantations drew immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal and elsewhere to work in the fields, giving Hawaii the ethnic diversity still evident today.

A&B doesn’t have any plans for large land sales, though it may sell some small parcels as it has in the past, Benjamin said. The entire property is zoned for agriculture, and the company plans to keep it that way.

It’s not yet clear what crops will be grown on the land, Benjamin said in an interview. Sorghum and other grasses have shown promise in research trials conducted at the plantation, he said.

If successful, Benjamin said, those plans could support Hawaii as it tries to achieve food and energy self-sufficiency.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said he was deeply saddened by the news.

“For over 130 years, sugar production on Maui was more than a business, spawning a way of life and generations of hard working women and men who made our state remarkable and great,” he said in a statement.

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said his heart goes out to workers who will lose their jobs, but the change was inevitable. “Fruit trees, taro, bio-mass, papayas, avocados and much more have all gone through trial testing, leaving us very confident that while sugar cane is dead, agriculture will remain very much alive here,” he said in a statement.

Benjamin said the company was providing enhanced benefits and one-on-one assistance to help those being laid off move into retirement or a new job.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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