As Hawaii's traditional crops of pineapple and sugar have declined, farmers have adjusted to modern economic realities. Here, Del Monte field workers sort pineapples on a conveyor belt in Kunia.
New crops flourishing in place of pineapple
Crops like papaya and noni are now major moneymakers
WAIALUA » With Hawaii's famous pineapple industry slumping in the face of foreign competition, specialized crops like noni, papaya and macadamia nuts are beginning to bear fruit.
For many, pineapples symbolize America's 50th state. Now, however, they can be grown and shipped to the United States more cheaply from Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, China, India and Costa Rica.
Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. announced in February that it would end its Hawaii pineapple operations by mid-2008, and about 700 workers will lose jobs that date back to an era when plantations imported workers from around Asia.
"We're losing what Hawaii once had, but we're moving forward to a better time," said Alan Wong, a well-known local chef and owner of restaurants including the Pineapple Room. "If you want a taste of Hawaii, you can have it in ways you never had before."
Wong remembers working as a teenager in the pineapple fields of Central Oahu for $1.60 an hour. Now, parts of the island's huge plantations have either been handed over to small farmers or developed into subdivisions and shopping complexes.
"It was a different time," Wong said. "It's a little sad."
But as Hawaii's traditional crops have declined, farmers have shifted to more specialized food products that sell for premium prices.
"It became unprofitable to farm," said papaya farmer Ken Kamiya as he loaded the fruits from his trees into boxes. "In order for agriculture to really expand, we need to export. We need to get the fruits out of here and the money in here."
The transition to niche fruits and vegetables has been steadily growing during the last 20 years.
Revenue from products such as coffee, mangos, flowers and other tropical fruits has increased from $204 million in 1984 to $403 million in 2004, according to the state Department of Agriculture. By comparison, pineapple production was $83.1 million in 2004, down from $88.9 million in 1984.
Pineapple fields covered only about 13,000 acres on Hawaii in 2004, down from 35,000 acres in 1987. Many of the same farmers who once harvested pineapple now grow the new crops, and the same will likely happen with some of the workers at Del Monte who are losing their jobs.
Premium fruits like the round, pale and bumpy noni are helping to fill the void left by pineapple. The bitter-tasting noni juice -- which sells for about $30 a bottle -- is being promoted as a remedy for fever, skin infections, stomach pain and respiratory ailments.
"Everyone is trying to do what we're doing here," said Laakea Kamauoha, president of the Kamauoha Foundation, which educates farmers and helps get their local products to market. "Noni is a product that we're looking to use to get farmers back on the land. A lot of land is now open."
Macadamia nut production also has increased in recent years as more pineapple fields become available, said Dana Gray, chairman of Oils of Aloha, which processes macadamia nut oil.
"There's an impression that after sugar and pineapple went, agriculture was dead and we would just turn the islands over to tourism. That's not the case," Gray said. "Agriculture is important. Hawaii should be green and not covered by houses."
At Dean Okimoto's herb and salad greens farm in Waimanalo, the narrow green rows of inches-high arugula, basil and chili peppers add to dishes at 120 restaurants.
"Farmers are having to change to meet market demands," said Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.
In many ways the loss of pineapples is a natural response to globalization trends, said Sandra Kunimoto, Board of Agriculture chairwoman. Poorer countries have lower labor and land costs, and it is more efficient for them to grow common fruits in bulk, she said.
With global competition, American farmers face the need to diversify, she said.
"It's opened up everybody's eyes to what is possible," she said.
Pineapples will always be grown in Hawaii, but in decreasing numbers, farmers say. The demand for new, exotic varieties will determine how popular they are.
The Dole Plantation in Wahiawa is still a major tourist attraction, but it now reaches beyond pineapple, with a new garden that features a wide variety of tropical agriculture, a maze and a train ride. A popular refreshment for locals and tourists is still its ultimate pineapple float -- pineapple ice cream floating in Hawaiian pineapple juice.
Another Hawaii pineapple brand, Maui Gold, emphasizes its sweet, juicy flavor and its local origins to attract new customers, said Brian Nishida, president of Maui Pineapple Co.
"Imagine being a tourist and coming to Hawaii and not having pineapple!" Nishida said. "We are very much niche players. ... We believe that gives us an advantage over the mass marketers."