After collapse of Hawaiian sugar industry, cane producer strives to use sugar land for other uses
HONOLULU — After shutting down the last sugar operations in Hawaii in December, Alexander & Baldwin, one of the original Big Five sugar companies in the islands, is now striving — with difficulty — to convert its 36,000-acre Maui property to ranching and food crops.
That could mean more locally produced meat, dairy products, eggs and fruit and vegetables if Hawaiians are willing to pay for them, but it’s much harder than growing sugar cane and refining it into sugar, said Christopher Benjamin, the president and CEO of Alexander & Baldwin, in a recent interview in A&B’s headquarters in downtown Honolulu.
For islands thousands of miles from major markets “sugar was good — it could be stored literally for years, it was a perfect export crop,” Benjamin said. “Anything that replaces it needs to be consumed locally or exported at a very high cost.”
A&B started out as a sugar producer on Maui in the 19th century. The company has evolved in a major landowner and developer, but maintained its Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. fields and mill at Pu’unēnē, Maui, until it lost $28 million in 2015.
The American Sugar Alliance, which represents U.S. beet and cane growers, has cited the imports of subsidized, dumped sugar from Mexico that are this week the subject of negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico as one reason for the closure. But in addition to low sugar prices there was also pressure from environmentalists and local residents to stop the cane burning that was vital to production.
Members of a group called Stop Burning Now were thrilled at the closure, but for the 650 workers who were laid off and others associated with HC&S, the day the closure and layoffs were announced was an unhappy one.
“This is a sad day for A&B, and it is with great regret that we have reached this decision,” said Benjamin, a Michigander who met a woman from Hawaii in Boston, married her and moved to Hawaii to raise their children when he go a job at HC&S. He was its general manager from 2009 to 2011.
Ryan Weston, a Washington sugar lobbyist who represented HC&S and traveled to Maui for the final harvest, said that visit was “one of the saddest days of my professional career.”