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Maui Pineapple harvests final crop


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POSTED: Thursday, December 24, 2009

Battered by foreign competition and a sputtering economy, the last major pineapple producer in Hawaii completed its final harvest after 97 years in the agricultural business.

Maui Land & Pineapple Co. Inc. harvested its last crop yesterday in the fields at Haliimaile, marking the end of an era that once had pineapple as a major employer in the state.

"It's kind of heartbreaking," said Harold Gouveia, 62, an equipment mechanic who has worked at the company for 32 years.

"For me, the company was the grass roots for everything. ... My father worked here for more than 40 years. My dad said if it wasn't for Maui Pine, we wouldn't be where we are today."

Some 285 employees are expected to be laid off officially by Dec. 31, while 133 employees will be transferred to partner companies, the firm said earlier this year.

The firm's board chairman, Warren Haruki, said the company was working with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to make the transition as smooth as possible.

"We appreciate and acknowledge the commitment of these hard-working employees," Haruki said.

The firm said yesterday it is working with a group of former and current Maui Pineapple Co. employees who intend to form a new company to continue pineapple farming on Maui.

Under the tentative plan, the firm said, the new pineapple company would continue growing, packing and selling Maui Gold fresh pineapple.

"The new company's primary focus would be on servicing the Hawaii market," the firm said. "Although we are hopeful, discussions are ongoing and definitive agreements have not been finalized."

Maui Pineapple, which once employed more than 1,000 people, halted canning in 2007, refocusing on its fresh-fruit operations and building a new $20 million fresh-fruit packing facility.

But it continued to lose money, including $12.6 million for the first nine months of 2009.

The firm said since 2002, it has lost $115 million in its agricultural operations.

Dole and Del Monte, once major pineapple producers in Hawaii, have shifted their pineapple canning operations to foreign countries such as the Philippines, where labor is cheaper.

Dole has cut back its operations to some 2,700 acres of pineapple land in Wahiawa, and Del Monte shut down the last of its fresh produce operation on Oahu in 2008.

Maui Pineapple planted its first fruit in 1912 in West Maui.

The Cameron family, descendants of missionaries to Hawaii, bought controlling interest in Maui Pineapple Co. in 1969 from Alexander & Baldwin Inc. and changed the name to Maui Land & Pineapple Co.

Company President Colin Cameron expanded the firm's operations and founded the Kapalua Resort and Kapalua Land Co.

Cameron hoped the diversification into resort and residential developments would help offset any downturns in the pineapple subsidiary, the family said.

He also helped create the Maui Economic Development Board, whose members guided the building of the Maui Research & Technology Park, home of the Maui High Performance Computing Center.

Cameron died in 1992 of a heart attack, and Steve Case, who was then America Online's board chairman, began obtaining controlling interest in the firm in 1999.

Mary Sanford, Cameron's sister and a former board member, said she was very sad about the closure of the pineapple operations.

Sanford said she felt the Maui Gold pineapple brand was a good product that could continue to have consumer appeal.

"It's a very good-tasting product," she said.

Gouveia, an ILWU unit chairman, said he's in a better position than many employees because he's worked for the company long enough to draw retirement and also medical benefits.

He said he's worried about the people who have worked for a little more than 20 years and won't have the benefit of medical coverage and will have problems finding a job on Maui.

"The worker market is bad now," Gouveia said. "Agriculture is not going well."

He said the loss of pineapple production will also have a domino effect on other businesses, including fertilizer and irrigation suppliers.

Jason Hadley, 25, who operated a fresh-fruit sorting machine, said he has worked most of his adult life for the firm.

Hadley, who supports his girlfriend and 1-month-old baby, said he's hopeful but unsure what he'll find as a new job.

"I don't know yet," he said.