The last haul


POSTED: Saturday, October 31, 2009

WAIMEA, Kauai » The sugar workers bringing in the last harvest at centuries-old Gay & Robinson had tears in their eyes, but this time it was not from the smoke and burning caramel smell that accompanies cane processing.

Amid a chorus of honking trucks, employees escorted Kauai's last load of sugar cane from the field to the mill yesterday. Along the way, they paid homage to West Kauai, and the community responded in kind.

The convoy began at Makaweli Post Office and proceeded through Waimea Town, around the West Kauai Technology Center and into Hanapepe before stopping at Kaumakani Mill where the workers rode up the dusty drive like returning war heroes. They are the last of their kind on Kauai, the island that ushered in the state's centuries-old sugar tradition with the opening of the first successful sugar mill in Koloa in 1835. They are the end of an era.

Frederick Bacio, 70, who started at Gay & Robinson as a teenager and has never known or wanted a life outside of sugar, was one of the hundreds of workers participating in the final harvest.

“;I retired for six months when I turned 62, but I said, 'This is not for me,' and I came back to work,”; said Bacio, who operated a push rake until yesterday.

“;I just don't know what I'm going to do now.”;

After the last truck is unloaded, 137 employees will stay on until Nov. 25, said E. Alan Kennet, president of Gay & Robinson. Although 30 workers will remain to support ranch and housing operations, Kennet said he will retire from his 34 years in Hawaii sugar after the transition.

“;It was a very, very tough day for me,”; Kennet said. “;We tried everything to keep the company going. The (Robinson) family lost a lot of money over the last five years.”;

The layoff list includes Bacio and many workers who have been at the company for decades. Some are descendants of the immigrants whose blood and sweat grew the company, and others have multiple family members on the payroll.

Dennis Budan, 62, who has worked at Gay & Robinson for the past 44 years, was introduced to sugar by his father and grandfather before him.

The economy drove the closure, Budan said.

“;It's getting bad, that's why sugar's getting bad,”; he said.

The one small consolation for Budan and others is that Gay & Robinson has pledged to maintain its plantation housing for as long as possible.

“;The plantation housing is affordable. Where could you find cheaper rent?”; said Budan, adding that most workers living in the camp pay less than $140 a month for housing and $10 a year for water.

Bruce Robinson, the plant's vice president and general manager, said although sugar's demise was inevitable, closing day was still hard. A descendent of Aubrey Robinson, who founded the plantation in 1889 with his cousin Francis Gay, the modern-day Robinson took the closure especially hard.

“;When I was a kid, there were over 80 plants in Hawaii, then there were 18, and two and now it's only one,”; Robinson said. “;It's really sad.”;

Gay & Robinson's decision leaves Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) on Maui as Hawaii's last sugar grower. The company, which employs about 800, is thinking of exiting the business, too.

“;Sugar lasted until tourism roared past it and foreign competition made our higher land and labor costs a liability,”; said Bob Sigall, a Hawaii Pacific University professor and author of “;The Companies We Keep.”; “;But in those 100 years, it shaped the islands in a definite and powerful way.”;

In its heyday there were multiple sugar plantations employing thousands across the isles. But in the last several decades, the industry downsized, said Nils K. Morita, research statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Hawaii office.

In 1970, 5,900 Hawaii sugar workers toiled on 239,000 acres, Morita said. By 2000 the number of acres in sugar production had slipped to 60,000, and only about 1,000 workers remained, he said. This year the USDA projected only 21,700 acres in Hawaii would be in sugar.

Kennet said Gay & Robinson succumbed to debt, low sugar prices and its inability to fetch top dollar for alternate energy.

The company wanted to move into liquid alternate energy, but a 2007 partnership with Pacific West Energy LLC to develop a fuel ethanol plant derived from sugar cane ground to a halt after oil prices collapsed last year.

“;We couldn't bet on it when we were really struggling,”; Kennet said, but added that Pacific West has talked to the company about leasing Gay & Robinson's plant for its own project.

Gay & Robinson also leased 3,400 acres to Dow AgroSciences, which might have seed crop jobs for displaced workers.

Richard Henderson, 54, who has lived and worked at the plantation for eight years, hopes to get a job with Dow.

“;I'm too young to retire,”; said Henderson, who worked at two other sugar plantations before joining Gay & Robinson and used to cut school as a child to watch the cane burn.

Despite the closure, Hawaii's Agriculture Director Sandra Lee Kunimoto expects significant agricultural activity to remain on Kauai.

“;There is no question that sugar was an important part of our agricultural history and the history of the state because it's why so many people came here, but situations evolve and it creates opportunities for other things to happen,”; Kunimoto said.

Expansion of the seed industry, which employs more than 1,800 workers and is growing rapidly, will be good for Kauai, she said.

“;Up until about six months ago, the employment situation on Kauai was really bleak,”; said George Costa, director of Kauai's Office of Economic Development. “;There are mixed emotions about the biotech and seed corn companies, but they've been the saving grace on Kauai's west side.”;

Costa, who grew up chasing the sugar cane train along with other keiki looking for bits of nature's candy to fall from the sky, said that because of the burgeoning seed industry, some of the smaller towns closer to the plantation camps might maintain their rural nature.

“;The sugar land is now in corn or some other crop, so hopefully Kauai will keep its beautiful green vistas,”; he said.


Hawaii sugar through the decades ...

YearAcres PlantedAcres HarvestedWorkersPrice Per TonAnnual Value
1970239,000113,8005,900$10.60$110.6 million
1980217,70097,4004,840$41.80$385.1 million
1990162,00072,0003,050$32.70$213.8 million
200060,00030,2001,000$26.30$62.2 million

Source: USDA Hawaii field office

Hawaii sugar at a glance…

1835 » The first successful sugarcane plantation opened in Koloa, Kauai.

1850 » Sugar planters organized the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society.

1837 » Koloa's first harvest produced 2 tons of raw sugar, which traded for $200.

1841 » Sugar workers at Koloa, who were paid 12.5 cents a day, conducted Hawaii's first strike.

1852 to 1945 » About 385,000 immigrants arrived to work in Hawaii's sugar industry.

1876 » The United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii signed the Treaty of Reciprocity, eliminating a major trade barrier.

1868 » The Scioto sailing ship brought about 150 workers from Yokohama, Japan, to work on Hawaii's sugar plantations. These workers, who become known as Gannenmono or “;first-year people”; represented Japan's first mass immigration to the U.S.

1889 » Cousins Francis Gay and Aubrey Robinson started Gay & Robinson sugar plantation in Makaweli.

1905 » Collective bargaining began in Hawaii's sugar industry as the Waialua Agricultural Co. on Oahu started a week-long strike involving 1,196 workers. The strike ended with 26 out of 32 demands granted.

1906 » The first group of Filipino plantation workers recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association arrived in Honolulu aboard the SS Doric.

1908 » Japanese sugar workers formed the Japanese Higher Wage Association.

1909 » Japanese Higher Wage Association lead a sugar workers strike on Oahu.

1945 » Hawaii sugar workers signed the first ILWU agreement by flashlight at night in the alley behind Waikiki Tropics.

1946 » The National Labor Relations Review Board ruled that sugar plantation workers had the right to form and join labor unions. The ILWU lead 21,000 sugar workers in the 79-day “;Great Hawaii Sugar Strike”; against the Hawaii Employers Council.

1958 » ILWU organized a 128-day strike of 26 plantations with about 13,700 workers, called the Aloha Strike because the union kept the cane irrigated so it would not die.

1959 » With statehood and the introduction of jet planes, tourism takes off, eventually becoming Hawaii's dominant industry.

1993 » Amfac/JMB Hawaii Inc. began a two-year shut down of Oahu Sugar Co.'s Waipahu Sugar Mill.

1993 » Hamakua Sugar on the Big Island announced bankruptcy.

1994 » Dole Food Co. announced its intention to close North Shore Oahu's Waialua Sugar Co.

1994 » 9,000 ILWU sugar workers went on a 39-day strike.

1995 » Oahu Sugar Co. shut down.

1996 » Oahu and the Big Island saw their final sugar cane harvests.

2000 » Alexander & Baldwin closed the Paia sugar mill on Maui, laying off 77 workers. Amfac closed two sugar mills on Kauai, laying off 400 workers.

2008 » Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on Maui grappled with water shortages, lower sugar prices and decreased output.

2009 » HC&S told the Hawaii Water Resource Commission that a recommendation to restore up to 50 percent of the water in four West Maui streams could cause its closure.

Yesterday » Kauai saw its last sugar harvest with the closure of sugar operations at Gay & Robinson, the Garden Isle's last sugar plantation.


Source: Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, ILWU, Star-Bulletin archives