Deal in works for new, smaller company to farm golden fruit
By ILIMA LOOMIS, Staff Writer
POSTED: December 24, 2009
Fieldworkers picked their last pineapples Wednesday as Maui Pineapple Co. ceased operations after 100 years of farming.
About 285 Maui Pine workers are being laid off in the shutdown, with their last official day of employment Dec. 31. Another 133 employees were expected to be offered positions at Maui Land & Pineapple partner companies.
Some remained hopeful a startup company would take over Maui Pine land, equipment and operations to continue pineapple farming on Maui and hire back some of the laid-off workers.
But 32-year Maui Pine employee Roberta Brown said she wouldn’t seek work with a new operator and was ready to move on.
"This was the only job I ever knew," she said in a phone interview from the field. "After high school I just stayed here because I didn’t have money for college. Hey, it’s been 32-and-a-half years! Man, that went by quick."
Now the 50-year-old Makawao resident plans to go back to school, and is thinking of studying culinary arts.
"I’m going to try that and see if it works out," she said.
In November, ML&P announced it would shut down its agricultural segment at the end of the year, saying Maui Pine had lost $115 million since 2002 and that pineapple operations were no longer financially sustainable.
The shutdown follows several turbulent years for Maui Land & Pineapple. The company has reported losing $92.9 million for the first three quarters of 2009, coming on top of a $71.6 million loss in 2008.
In a written statement, officials on Wednesday confirmed ML&P was working with a group of former and current Maui Pineapple employees who intend to form a new company that would continue pineapple farming on Maui.
"The new pineapple company would grow, pack and sell Maui Gold fresh pineapple, primarily to the Hawaii market. Although we are hopeful, discussions are ongoing and definitive agreements have not been finalized," the statement said.
ML&P Chairman and interim Chief Executive Officer Warren Haruki said: "Today is the last day on the job for most of our dedicated Maui Pineapple Company employees. We appreciate and acknowledge the commitment of these hard-working employees throughout our 100-year history. Together with the support of the ILWU, we are assisting them to make this closure and transition as smooth as possible."
International Longshore and Warehouse Union Maui Division Director Willie Kennison declined to comment on the planned new operation, except to say all parties were working "diligently" on the deal and that he expected news to be announced next week.
"Although it looks like the end of an era, we’re hoping it’s not," he said. "We’re hoping this new company we’re working with becomes a reality."
Still, there was "no question" the new venture would be much smaller than Maui Pine’s current operation, he said.
Brown said she started working for Maui Pine when she was 14 years old, picking pineapples on her summer vacations.
"That’s the only job had back then – no McDonald’s!" she said. "My parents used to work here too back in the day, and my kids worked in the summertime when they were in high school, and my sister and my nieces and nephews. It’s a whole family thing."
Starting her workday at 4:30 a.m. for more than 30 years, Brown moved up through the ranks, spending time on the harvester, as a supervisor, and as a truck driver for the past 20 years.
"I always wanted to drive truck, that’s my passion," she said. "It’s the excitement that I can do it better than the men – which I can, even in the mud! Some people think a woman cannot do it, but yeah, I do. Anyone can drive it on the highway, but in the dirt, when it rains, that’s a challenge."
One of her fellow female truck drivers, Jerrilyn De Cambra, also came from a Maui Pine family.
"My mom was actually harvesting pineapple while she was pregnant with me. I got the reputation of being a ratoon crop," she giggled, referring to the tiny fruits the plants bear after the commercial harvest has been picked.
De Cambra’s father immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines in 1946 to work in the pineapple fields, bringing over her siblings one by one until her mother arrived to reunite the family in 1963.
"Five years later came me," she said.
De Cambra said she had mixed feelings her last day on the job. After 32 years working early hours and long days, she was looking forward to spending more time with her children. But she was also sad to be leaving her friends and a job that she loved.
"It’s kind of bittersweet," she said. "I’m going to miss it, because it’s all I’ve ever known."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.