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Pineapple joins sugar as almost a memory


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POSTED: Sunday, November 08, 2009

Even those who spent only a few summers in scorching fields and noisy canneries picking and processing pineapples cannot help but feel a bit sentimental about yet another island narrative blurring into history.

Though the landscape has been altered for years, it's still startling to me that the sweeping spaces between the Koolaus and Waianaes in Central Oahu no longer hold the rows of crops that were once important parts of Hawaii's economic vitality.

Sugar may yet survive here, not for its sweet crystalline granules but as an alternative fuel to oil. However, there hasn't been much progress in developing the tropical grass for biofuels, despite lots of talk.

The situation is different for pineapple. Mainly the stuff of fruit salads and mai tai garnishes, pineapple doesn't have “;alternative”; uses. As flavorful as it is, pine isn't a staple, like wheat or rice. It's always been a specialty crop, something nice to have but not a necessity.

Pineapple was huge for Hawaii, producing through the last century thousands of jobs and businesses. There was even a government-funded research institute devoted solely to pineapple. At one time, the fruit carried the entire economy of Lanai, prompting its designation as the “;pineapple island”; because it supplied 75 percent of the fruit to the world.

As a symbol of hospitality, pineapple came to be closely identified with Hawaii and its global mythical image of paradise. No island vacation would be complete without a stroll on white-sand beaches, a dip in the warm ocean waters and a spear of pineapple in an umbrella-decorated drink.

As the cost of growing pine and sugar cane became too high for American soil, the large-scale agricultural industries slowly transformed into economic accessories. Companies that held crop land began cultivating housing, hotels and other commercial development instead.

With Maui Land & Pineapple quitting the field, only one company continues producing the fruit here and it would not be surprising if someday soon Hawaiian pineapple will be merely a marketing device, Hawaiian in name only, much like most macadamia nut candies and that awful, lip-dyeing fruity-juicy Hawaiian Punch.

Maui Land & Pineapple will still be called that. Whether for provenance or other reasons, it is the company's choice, just as terminating pineapple production was. Workers who have lost their jobs at a time when jobs are scarce do not have choices, but that is the lay of the economic landscape.

It is a scene that has played out repeatedly in island history, narrowing the economic base to tourism, as fragile and unstable an industry as the mythical paradise it struggles to support. Hawaii's attraction to travelers also has blurred considerably since the days of big agriculture. The state's brand isn't as crisp as it used to be and government and tourism officials are in a constant hunt for new markets, such as China, where Gov. Linda Lingle and others have spent the past week selling Hawaii.

I wonder if, at some point, tourism will reach its confines. I wonder then what choices we'll have.