Sugar’s Future Turns Bitter as Hawaiian Economy Sours : Agriculture: Foreign competition and sprawling subdivisions squeeze industry. Workers are cast adrift.


For more than a century, sugar was king in Hawaii, a powerful force that drove the islands’ economy and politics. Now, the dynasty’s sweetness has gone sour.

Where there once were tall stands of lush sugar cane spreading across thousands of acres, many fields are fallow, tarnished with a dry, yellowish stubble of scrub cane and weeds.

West of downtown Honolulu, cane fields are giving way to sprawling subdivisions and a planned “second city” urban center.


It’s detracting from Hawaii’s world-famous tropical splendor.

The sugar industry molded Hawaii’s modern social and political fabric.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the vast plantations owned by the so-called “Big Five” companies imported contract workers from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Portugal, leading to Hawaii’s largely harmonious ethnic diversity.

The often repressive conditions on the plantations also led to sometimes violent union organization and a union-backed political revolution by the educated children of the immigrants in the 1950s.

But the number of workers in the sugar industry is dwindling rapidly.

From some 9,000 employees a decade ago, the industry’s work force has shrunk to about 2,000, according to Eusebio (Bobo) Lapenia Jr., president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union Local 142.

In June, McBryde Sugar Co. on the island of Kauai joined the growing list of plantations shutting down, citing decades of financial losses.

The shutdown follows the closures last year of Hamakua Sugar Co. and Hilo Coast Processing Co., both on the island of Hawaii, and Oahu Sugar Co., just west of Honolulu.

Waialua Sugar Co. on Oahu and Ka’u Agribusiness Co., also on Hawaii Island, have planted their last crops and will shut down once they complete a final harvest next year.


Remaining are Kekaha Sugar Co., Lihue Plantation Co. and Gay & Robinson Inc.’s operations, all on Kauai, and Maui’s Pioneer Mill Co. and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. HC&S; is the state’s largest sugar operation and the only one in recent years to add substantial sugar acreage.

The five plantations will produce about 400,000 tons of raw sugar annually on 69,000 acres, compared to a peak statewide output in 1966 of more than 1.2 million tons on 237,000 acres.

Does this mean it’s just a matter of time before all sugar production ends in Hawaii?

“I don’t think that’s a given,” said Robert Weimer, secretary and treasurer of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Assn. “I think a lot of us feel it’ll be around for a long time to come.”

But viability of the remaining sugar operations could rest on Congress’ decision on keeping federal sugar price supports, which expire in October. The price supports provide moderate protection from cheaper foreign sugar’s being dumped on the U.S. market.

“I don’t think Hawaii’s sugar industry can survive without some kind of price supports,” said James Andrasick, president of C. Brewer & Co., and former chairman of the producers’ association.

Lapenia agrees.

Lowering or eliminating price supports could spell quick doom for two or three of the plantations with only marginal profitability, leaving only the two strongest companies, HC&S; and Gay & Robinson, he said.


“In the past, all the companies shared the shipping, marketing and research costs,” Lapenia said. “When you shrink that base, that puts a bigger burden on the remaining companies and the profit margin becomes even less. That’s basic economics.”

Some in the sugar industry say it is in its death throes. Others say it’s only being honed to its strongest players who will survive for years.

It’s bringing to an end the tightknit plantation communities where companies provided cheap housing, medical services and recreation for the workers, whose hourly pay ranges from $7 to $13.

Once considered a social stigma, growing up in a plantation camp is worn today as a badge of honor. It’s bragging rights to the immigrant workers’ strong traditions of hard work and unity passed from one generation to the next.

“For those communities, it’s a way of life that’s going to be a thing of the past,” said Lapenia, whose father came to Hawaii from the Philippines in the 1930s to work in sugar.

The new mission for the industry-sponsored and state-supported HSPA will be to find other crops and uses for the old sugar lands, Weimer said.


“We can grow anything. It’s a question of whether we can market it successfully, given Hawaii’s distance from the mainland,” he said.

Sugar lands along the rainy Hamakua Coast on the island of Hawaii offer good potential for forests of Koa trees, prized for furniture, and the fast-growing eucalyptus trees as a fuel source, Weimer said.

Sugar lands in central and leeward areas of populous Oahu could provide much of the local demand for fresh produce, if sufficient water were provided.

Alexander & Baldwin Inc., the parent of McBryde Sugar, had already begun diversifying its sugar lands on Kauai, creating a 4,000-acre coffee plantation that will provide jobs for about one-fourth of its sugar work force. Other plantations have converted to macadamia nuts.

The ILWU is working with the state on various government programs to retrain sugar workers. “But what do you train them for? You have to know what jobs will be there. Right now there are none,” said Lapenia, his voice reflecting frustration.

Thousands of former sugar workers are looking for different jobs in an already tight labor market. Few have skills that offer significant opportunity in Hawaii’s new economic king--tourism.


“I can’t find a job around here to live on,” said Clarence Kempke, 59, a truck driver who came to Hawaii three years ago intending to work a few years at Hamakua Sugar Co. on the island of Hawaii before retiring.

He’s now on welfare and survives because he pays only $40 a month rent on the Ookala plantation camp house he was allowed to keep when the company closed last October.

“Oh, they have jobs, but they only pay $5.50 or $6 an hour. It’s not enough. I have a wife and child to feed,” said Kempke, who expects to return soon to Northern California where he has been offered a job.

Many workers at Hamakua Sugar Co. and Hilo Coast Processing Co. exhausted their unemployment benefits in May. They are being allowed to remain in their aging plantation homes.

The job losses are especially critical on the neighbor islands, where the sugar industry has been the economic mainstay for entire regions.

Even if workers are trained to do hotel and resort-related work, those jobs are already filled. With the tourist industry in a slump, there is no new hiring, said Lapenia, whose 23,000-member local also represents hotel, pineapple and longshore workers.


Augusto Gancinia, who came from the Philippines in 1979 and was an office worker at Hamakua Sugar when it shut down, took advantage of a federally funded training program and got a job as a cook 35 miles away at the Hilton Waikoloa Village luxury resort, where his wife, Cecilia, was already working.

“Now we spend so much time to go to the job, we don’t have as much time for our three children,” Cecilia Gancinia said. “My husband has to wake up at 3 a.m. and drive to the hotel, where he starts at 5 a.m. It is very tiring for him.”

Although there is talk of forestry and diversified agriculture on the 35,000 acres of sugar lands on the Hamakua Coast, neither is as labor-intensive as sugar, Lapenia said.

“Just because you’ve been a good sugar worker doesn’t mean you are going to be a good farmer,” he added.