HC&S workers recall lifetimes spent in sugar as the Maui company’s final harvest begins | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News | Lee Cataluna

HC&S workers recall lifetimes spent in sugar as the Maui company’s final harvest begins


    Pastor Greg Shepard of Keala Church of Maui, blessed the computer room from with HC&S employees, from left to right, Ernesto Pachas, Edward Coloma, Fernando Rosete, Anna Skrobecki, Jennifer McDonald for a safe harvest at the ceremonial first harvest of the last season of sugar cane at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) in Puunene, Maui on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.


    Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) First Burn of the Final Harvest in Puunene, Maui, Hawaii. Mark Lopes, Manager of Harvesting and Land Preparation and Supervisor, Nathan Carrillo discuss the morning’s plan at 4AM on Thursday, March 3rd 2016.


    Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) First Burn of the Final Harvest in Puunene, Maui, Hawaii. Anthony Feiteira, Crane Operator, loads cane into a hauler on on Thursday, March 3rd, 2016.


    Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) First Burn of the Final Harvest in Puunene, Maui, Hawaii. Nathan Carrillo, Supervisor lights the cane with a propane blowtorch on Thursday, March 3rd, 2016.


    Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) First Burn of the Final Harvest in Puunene, Maui, Hawaii. A harvestor rumbles forward on Thursday, March 3rd, 2016.

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.


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.


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.


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 lcataluna@staradvertiser.com.

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    • mahalo to the unions for overpricing costs of hawaii industries – they are no longer competitive and can be done elsewhere. Only wasted taxpayer money is funding the remaining overpaid union employment.

      • Why blame unions fool? That’s a total pile of you know what and as far as I’m concerned, your probably one of the individuals that cried and cried over caneburning and now your trying to blame unions. Don’t push off what’s really the issue here and it sure as hell isn’t the unions!

    • Lee has done a good job reminding us how valuable the plantations were to Hawaii and how many generations of low skilled and semi-skilled labor prospered. Alas, what will replace it? Nothing is available to lift all boats except government employment out here.

  • “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.

    In today’s world, he would be arrested and his son placed in the custody of child protective services.

    • That hints at a Typical non-local person without generations of life here in the islands, and who doesn’t understand the full cycle and true green energy production from sugar production.

    • Don’t like it than you should get out of here. Plantation is what made HAWAII. My dad and his family were born and raised in Puunene, I have allot of pictures of camp 12 and I remember riding in the cane haulers with my uncle David, God I loved those day’s. Time marches on and now I’m retired all I have is memories.
      My best wishes go out to those that are being affected by this closing, you all will be alright.

  • Maui and Kauai were full cycle recycling and about 100% renewable green energy decades before the state has been talking about it. The sugar cane plantations grew sugar, harvested, burned the bagasse byproduct to generate energy from a renewable source, turned the ash into fertilizer for the next growing cycle. Maui and Kauai at one time had sugar industries that electrically powered the entire island. One of those generators lives on in the Philippines where it power an entire extended village as part of a sugarcane cycle.

    Non-residents move in, then dare to say that this cycle poisoned their air and tout green by recycling once-used plastic bags or boxes. Go back in time and review how wooden pallets became handles for tools, boards for furniture, or boxes getting used over and over again to transport goods from business to person to business to person. Today everyone thinks so highly of themselves for recycling when Reuse is not in their cycle.

    • You need to realize that it is not just “Non-residents” who are saying this. Lots of “Locals” who are too young to know anything about plantations are also saying it.

  • Very well written capturing the important essence of the closing…..the feelings and memories of the workers. Another chapter of a changing Hawaii. Mahalo Ms. Cataluna

    • Agreed.
      Kinda misty eyed…so many memories.
      And it’s so true about the commitment and the ohana Ms. Cataluna mentions. My father worked for Puna Sugar Co. just before it closed in 1982. When the announcement was made of the closure most of the supervisors gathered at the manager’s house to commiserate. Though the feeling was sad I don’t remember anyone “giving up”.

  • Can’t experience the angst being experienced by those affected by the closing and can only sympathize with how they will face the final days and the days to follow when there is no familiar routine they can follow. Some probably have some idea or may already have made arrangement to make that transition. Some families have for generations been involved with the company and their loyalties were with sugar cane and they suffered also with its ups and down. When the reality occurs all that will remain is the memory and later they will reminisce about how sugar cane enabled them to survive. After all many left their homeland to make it with the sugar cane industry and many generations later many have received the blessings from this industry. My parents came as sugar cane workers to reap its benefit and later were able to make the transition to that of tradesman. My older brothers and sister were born in a plantation camp home and delivered by a mid-wive, whereas, I was born at home. My 3 younger brothers were all born in a hospital settings. Many immigrant families followed similar routes.

  • Don’t blame the unions for the demise of sugar. Blame the greed of big corporations who only wanted to max out the profit margin with no regard for the people whose blood and sweat made them rich.The unions made the difference between people treated as humans and not like animals. The filthy rich who in the next life will have to endure the cauldrons of you know where because they’re only purpose in life was to take care of themselves.

  • Let’s give a round of applause for these guys.The last Generation of Sugarcane Farmers… And a Big Mahalo to all the Whinning Mainland Transplants that encouraged the Closure of the Last Plantation.SAD! And please don’t give me this Racial Baloney…it’s not! It’s about our heritage & our traditions which is slowly disappearing….Yep!
    Like the Superferry:Locals need to speak up,or forever, we will lose it all!IMUA!

    • I totally agree with you! The silent majority needs to start speaking up or the mainland transplants will keep making little noise but enough to make the courts listen! Enough of this mainland logic already!!!

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