Large-scale Hawaii sugar cane farming ceased in December after 181 years with the closure of a Maui plantation that once was among more than 150 in the islands. But deep in a Windward Oahu valley, a vestige of the industry remains deeply rooted.
Here, amid majestic views of Mount Olomana, sugar cane is still growing strong.
Welcome to the Maunawili outpost of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, a living outdoor plant library of what was once Hawaii’s largest crop.
The 80-acre farm had been a critical laboratory that helped advance and sustain Hawaii’s sugar industry for decades. And now with the departure of the state’s last plantation, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., big changes loom for HARC.
This doesn’t mean the organization, which maintains about 1,500 varieties of sugar cane and a wealth of knowledge, will be plowed under, but the full impact of the HC&S shutdown on HARC isn’t clear yet.
“I think it’s still up in the air,” said Tyler Jones, manager of the Maunawili farm.
The organization dates from 1882, when sugar planters formed the Planters’ Labor and Supply Co. This became the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association in 1895 with a mission to support members largely by conducting research and sharing advances.
In searching for good sites to breed sugar cane, Maunawili was discovered in the 1920s to be optimal because the plant produces its flowering tassels well there, though Jones said why is a mystery.
“We don’t know for sure what it is about this environment,” he said. “Sugar cane doesn’t flower well in most environments.”
To understand how prolific the flowering is, Jones explained that the sugar industry in Louisiana spent tens of millions of dollars on greenhouses to produce about 500 tassels a year. In Maunawili the same can be done on a 20-square-foot dirt plot.
Producing great commercial sugar cane varieties, however, is not easy.
To create new varieties, researchers take one or more different varieties that have desirable characteristics and cross them by taking stalks with flowering tassels and sticking them under something that resembles a lampshade for three weeks to facilitate pollination and seed development.
HARC maintains roughly 350 good “parent” varieties from which to make crosses. Seeds produced from crosses are then planted and grown out for observation.
If a new plant showed promise, it could be cloned by cutting its stalk into pieces that are planted and produce new plants. After enough clones were produced by repeated cutting and planting, many cuttings could be sent to different plantations to establish further test plots. If a good new variety did well on plantations, it would return to the research station for mass reproduction so that all plantations could begin farming it.
Through this process, it could take 13 years to turn one new plant variety into more than a million clones for the industry.
Over the past 70 years, 22 new major varieties were adopted by Hawaii plantations.
Most of the new varieties that dramatically boosted sugar yields were developed in the 1960s and 1970s, though work after that improved disease and insect resistance, he added.
Sugar cane farming in Hawaii was so big that the largest plantation owners — five companies referred to as the Big Five — dominated commerce in the islands for close to a century.
“I wasn’t around in those days, but when they spoke we jumped,” Jones said. ”We were responsible to their needs.”
In the 1970s the trade association had a $7 million to $8 million annual budget and employed about 200 people at its main research station in Aiea, in Maunawili and substations on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island — plus an office in Washington, D.C.
Despite scientific advances, Hawaii plantations struggled with pressures that included low sugar prices and foreign competitors that could produce sugar more cheaply. As a result, more than 100 Hawaii sugar cane farms closed between 1985 and 1995.
With members declining, the association changed its name to HARC in 1996 to reflect diversified work to help remaining plantations establish potential replacement crops — including coffee, cacao, energy cane, eucalyptus and koa.
Some alternative crops were established, but only on relatively small portions of some plantations. And so the industry’s demise continued.
To adjust, HARC’s staff was trimmed to about 70 by the late 1990s, and the organization sold its Aiea property in 2006 for $20.6 million. It built a new facility in Kunia where it acquired more than 100 acres of farmland from Campbell Estate for about $4 million.
Stephanie Whalen, HARC’s longtime executive director, said the move was “critical” for survival. “Things got tight,” she said.
The Kunia real estate deal allowed HARC to rent out warehouse buildings there to businesses for income as funding from plantations dropped.
Shortly thereafter, HARC ceased to be a trade association and became a regular nonprofit when Kauai plantation Gay & Robinson closed in 2009, leaving HC&S as Hawaii’s last sugar plantation.
Given that the 36,000-acre HC&S farm had long had been Hawaii’s largest sugar plantation, HARC maintained significant work that included seedling production, disease maintenance and experimentation with energy cane.
But then early last year HC&S owner Alexander & Baldwin Inc. announced its shutdown plan, and for the first time in probably 100 years, HARC didn’t breed any sugar cane.
Jones held up a handful of seeds that the plants produce in bunches of gray fuzz. “I have lots and lots of this that I don’t know what to do with,” he said.
To reflect this shift, HARC modified its logo from a sugar cane stalk to generic grass blades.
HARC still does research on other crops such as papaya, alfalfa, protea, coffee, cacao, corn, wheat, rice and more on its 108-acre Kunia farm. In its indoor Kunia lab, the organization produces seedlings from tissue cultures in glass vials.
This work, called micropropagation, is being done mostly for sugar cane and banana plants, but also for coffee, papaya, pineapple, taro, anthuriums and orchids. HARC produces more than 50,000 plants a year that it supplies to growers in Hawaii, on the mainland and in foreign countries.
Cacao is another major focus, with HARC aiming to foster a bigger industry in Hawaii for specialty chocolate production. One of the greatest impediments to this goal, HARC said, is limited data correlating bred varieties, or cultivars, with flavor.
“The current practice of growing trees from unimproved seed prevents Hawaiian growers from optimizing cultivars with fine flavor profiles,” the organization said in a memo. “This variability of seedling populations negatively impacts harvest costs, fermentation and consequently flavor.”
HARC has 2 acres of cacao in Maunawili. Researchers there also are working with specialty coffee varieties and recently harvested about 600 pounds of coffee beans from trees growing in the shade of koa planted long ago on the Maunawili farm.
“We had it tested and cupped (judged on taste), and it scored quite well,” Jones said, adding that the coffee is intended for sale after being stored.
HARC has 3 acres of coffee growing in Maunawili and also maintains planting trials in other parts of the state.
Other examples of income-generating work at HARC include providing disease-resistant koa seedlings to commercial farmers and helping private entities establish and maintain koa. HARC, which has 3 acres of koa for seed production and another 2 acres for other uses in Maunawili, also provided koa to California- based guitar maker Taylor Guitars to make 50 instruments.
Sugar cane and HC&S though, are still important, as the company contributes the most financial support to HARC’s Maunawili operations. Overall, HARC has a $2 million to $2.5 million annual budget and 30 to 40 employees who also are supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and private contract work.
Future for cane
Darren Pai, an A&B spokesman, said HARC remains an important partner for the company as it makes the transition to diversified agriculture.
“While we are no longer engaging them for ongoing support of sugar operations, we do have a service contract with HARC for preservation of sugar and energy cane varieties, koa forestry work and other diversified agriculture support,” he said.
Though HARC reduced the amount of sugar cane it grows in Maunawili to 3.5 acres in 2016 from 6 acres in 2015, it increased the acreage for energy cane to 1.3 acres from 1 acre.
HARC has been working with energy canes for more than five years, helping HC&S and also collaborating with the University of Illinois and Texas A&M University. This work includes breeding to enhance biomass, or fibrous plant material, that can be converted to energy, and identifying genes that make the plant good for energy production.
“It’s such a huge potential market,” Jones said, though a hang-up for large-scale ethanol production from cane in Hawaii is the technology for converting biomass into fuel, which companies are trying to make more economical.
Whether energy canes support HARC in the coming decades and maintain the connection with HC&S and A&B remains to be seen, but Jones is hopeful.
“We have over a 120-year history with Alexander & Baldwin,” he said. “We are still working with them and look forward hopefully to continuing.”