Pineapple perseveres on small farms on the Valley Isle

StarAdvertiser
By Andrew Gomes

It’s easy to see Hawaii’s connection to pineapple farming at Maui’s main airport, where plush toys, picture frames, candy and other items made in the oblong fruit’s image are for sale along with three-packs of the real thing for $29.95. At the Maui Pineapple Store in Lahaina, there’s also pineapple hot sauce and pineapple spice soap.

What’s less apparent, though, is how the local pineapple industry sidestepped a shutdown trend over the last four decades to outlast sugar cane, the longtime king crop of Hawaii agriculture.

Three years after the last sugar plantation in the state disappeared, two major pineapple farms stemming from the bygone plantation era are still running.

One, in Haliimaile, defied a shutdown twice in the last decade and has been supported for the last 18 months by a company making vodka, gin and other spirits from pineapple juice.

The other, on Oahu, is still run by what used to be one of Hawaii’s four dominant pineapple plantation operators, though on a smaller scale.

These two companies, Maui Gold Pineapple Co. and Dole Food Co., generally supply 100% of the statewide market for fresh pineapple, which also includes contributions from much smaller local farms.

“If Dole does well, we do well. If we do well, Dole does well,” said Rodrigo “Rudy” Balala, Maui Gold general manager.

Of the two companies, Maui Gold has had the more unsettling ride — so much so that many people on Maui were unaware recently that the company was still around, according to farm manager Kary Hisashima.

“People just figured we went out of business,” he said.

A lot of Hawaii pineapple producers did meet that fate, largely since the 1960s under pressure from lower-cost plantations in Asia and Central America often run by the same companies that dominated pineapple farming in Hawaii.

Commercial pineapple farming in Hawaii dates back to the late 1880s and initially produced fruit for canning. Production peaked in 1955 with 1.5 million tons of fruit grown on 76,700 acres mainly on Oahu, Maui, Molokai and Lanai, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

In the early 1960s, Hawaii pineapple growers supplied more than 80% of the world market for canned pineapple. But a decline took hold by 1966, and a later shift to growing sweeter and less acidic varieties for fresh fruit sales didn’t stop most of the demise.

Kauai lost its last plantation, the 2,200-acre Hawaiian Fruit Packers farm, in 1973.

On Molokai, Dole pulled the plug in 1975 on a 12,500-acre farm it acquired five years earlier from Libby McNeill & Libby, while Del Monte’s last harvest on a portion of what had been a 6,000-acre farm there was in 1988.

Lanai, long nicknamed the Pineapple Isle, was once the world’s largest pineapple plantation at roughly 15,000 acres. But that Dole operation ceased in 1992.

Oahu and Maui outlasted other islands for pineapple production, but the industry has come close to extinction on these islands as well.

In 2006 Del Monte Fresh Produce quit the business on Oahu. That left just two major pineapple growers in Hawaii: Dole on Oahu and Maui Pineapple Co.

Dole’s Oahu pineapple plantation once covered 12,500 acres in Wahiawa, but by the mid-1970s was down to 4,500 acres as the company shifted from canning to fresh fruit sales.

After further shrinking its operation to 2,700 acres around 2006, California-based Dole is back up to 4,100 acres on Oahu, where it produces pineapple mainly for the local market but also Western states.

Dole spokesman Bill Goldfield said the farm maintains some profitability but also helps support the Dole Plantation visitor attraction in Wahiawa and holds tremendous value as an “iconic product in Hawaii that so much of the company’s image is founded upon.”

Gold rush saves planters

On Maui, sustaining that iconic product has teetered on the brink twice.

Maui Pineapple Co., a subsidiary of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., stayed in business for 100 years in part by branching into resort and other urban development on much of what had been 12,000 acres of pineapple fields largely around Kapalua in West Maui. In 2009 the company announced plans to shut down its last roughly 3,000 acres of pineapple operations in Haliimaile on the lower slopes of Haleakala, after closing its Kahului cannery in 2007.

That decision stood to wipe out pineapple’s heritage on another island. The move also hurt suppliers and vendors, including M. Yamamura & Sons, a nearly 600-acre pineapple farm in Haiku which was started by Hisashima’s grandfather and sold its crop to Maui Pine.

However, a handful of company veterans including Balala and former Maui Pine President Doug Schenk preserved much of the operation by forming Haliimaile Pineapple Co., doing business as Maui Gold Pineapple.

Maui Gold, financed by Ulupalakua Ranch owner Pardee Erdman, leased about 1,000 acres and purchased equipment from Maui Pine to continue pineapple farming that preserved 66 of the farm’s 206 jobs.

Balala, who was Maui Pine’s director of fresh and harvesting operations, recalled that banks declined to finance what he jokes was a “dumb” idea to attempt to salvage a farm that was losing money amid a recession.

“We were underfunded going into it, but we had to take that chance to keep it going,” he said.

Maui Gold inherited some pineapple in the fields to start with and aimed to plant 120 to 150 acres a year. Each acre can support about 30,000 plants, which are harvested three times over three years before replanting after a field rests for a year. New plants take about 18 months to produce fruit.

Planters including 63-year-old Arnold Ancheta, a veteran with 27 years of experience going back to Maui Pine, work two days a week and can plant 9,000 stalks a day.

“It’s good,” Ancheta said of the work that pays $30 a hour plus a bonus after the first 6,000 stalks.

In good spirits

After about five years Maui Gold had expanded to about 480 acres planted and developed a good revenue stream with sales of fresh whole fruit, fresh cut fruit and juice. Fresh fruit customers included Maui grocery stores, Costco, other retailers, consumers online and even one grocer in Oregon.

Juice buyers include Maui Brewing Co., MauiWine, Ola Brew Co. on Hawaii island and Haliimaile Distilling Co.

Other income streams included farm tours and supplying companies making value-added products including syrups and jams.

But then in 2015 the farm got hit with extremely heavy rain that damaged the crop and created a dire situation. Hisashima said lost sales constricted revenue needed to pay for planting, fertilizer and other things, which reduced production and quality. That, in turn, further hurt sales and led to the company’s biggest customer, Costco, dropping Maui Gold.

In essence, a slow death spiral was cutting Maui Gold to the core.

With the farm on the brink of another shutdown, Maui Gold sought financial help from the owner of the business making spirits from Maui Gold pineapple juice next door in a former Maui Pine truck maintenance building.

California-based LeVecke Corp., a 70-year-old bottler of spirits which created PAU Maui Vodka in 2006, followed by Haliimaile Distilling in 2010, bought Maui Gold in March 2018.

Joe LeVecke, president of the family firm started by his great-grandfather, said the acquisition made good business sense but also had a bigger emotional and cultural legacy benefit by continuing something sustained by generations of Hawaii residents, including kids picking pineapples during the summer.

“It’s a responsibility,” he said. “We’re stewards of pineapple on the island for this moment in time.”

Over the past 18 months, Maui Gold reinvested in planting, improved farm practices that now include using biodegradable mulch film, regained Costco as a customer, reduced its lease to 800 acres and downsized its workforce to 52 through efficiencies.

LeVecke said Maui Gold this year will be profitable, and he is looking ahead at expansion if the company can obtain a long-term lease for perhaps 1,300 to 1,500 acres.

“The future can be really, really bright,” he said. “We’d love to grow the farm.”

Balala, who is 56 and worked in only one industry for the past 41 years, is appreciative of LeVecke’s help.

“It’s a great marriage,” Balala said. “We got to make sure that this thing continues. It’s an integral part of Hawaii’s agriculture community. You don’t want to see something that’s been growing in Hawaii for so long finally disappear.”

History of Hawaii’s pineapple industry

1813: Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, Spanish adviser to King Kamehameha I, introduces pineapple, or hala kahiki, to Hawaii.

1885: English horticulturalist Capt. John Kidwell, recognized as the pioneer of Hawaii’s pineapple industry, pursues crop development trials in Manoa.

1890: Kidwell plants Smooth Cayenne variety, ideal for canning, near Pearl Harbor.

1900: “California homesteader” Alfred W. Eames starts selling fresh pineapple at what would become California Packing Corp. and Del Monte Fresh Produce (Hawaii) Inc.

1901: Businessman and future “Pineapple King” James Drummond Dole incorporates Hawaiian Pineapple Co. and begins growing fruit on 60 acres in Wahiawa.

1903: Maui’s missionary Baldwin family establishes a firm that becomes Maui Pineapple Co.

1913: Henry Ginaca creates machine to peel and core pineapples for Dole.

1922: Dole buys nearly all of Lanai to establish the world’s largest pineapple plantation, covering about 15,000 acres.

1930: Eight canneries pack 9 million cases of canned pineapple.

1955: Pineapple production peaks at 76,700 acres planted and 1.5 million tons of harvested fruit. Sales total about $110 million.

Early 1960s: Hawaii pineapple growers supply more than 80% of the world’s canned pineapple.

1966: Pineapple production is firmly in decline.

1973: Last pineapple plantation on Kauai closes.

1975: Dole Food Co., successor to Hawaiian Pineapple Co., cuts size of the once 12,500-acre Wahiawa plantation to 4,500 acres from 9,000 acres.

1976: Del Monte begins national distribution of fresh Hawaii pineapples.

1983: Del Monte ceases Hawaii canning operations.

1988: Last pineapple plantation on Molokai closes.

1989: Del Monte introduces fresh-cut chilled Hawaii pineapple, the first nationally distributed, fresh-cut, refrigerated fruit item.

1992: Dole closes Iwilei cannery and tears down landmark pineapple water tower a year later.

1993: Dole ceases pineapple production on Lanai.

1997: Del Monte unveils a sweeter premium pineapple, Del Monte Gold, which goes on to compete with sweet varieties sold fresh by Maui Pine and Dole.

1998: Maui Pine announces plans to extend operations to Indonesia and Central America.

2004: Del Monte reduces Oahu pineapple farming to 4,000 acres from 6,000.

2006: Del Monte ceases all Hawaii pineapple operations. Dole’s Oahu farm shrinks to 2,700 acres.

2007: Maui Pine, Hawaii’s last pineapple canner, stops canning and shifts all production to fresh fruit.

2009: Maui Pine, which once farmed 12,000 acres, quits farming its last 3,000 acres.

2010: Haliimaile Pineapple Co. formed to continue farming some Maui Pine land.

2015: Haliimaile Pineapple falters amid cash crunch after bad weather.

2017: Dole reports increase in Oahu farm size to 4,100 acres.

2018: LeVecke Corp. buys Haliimaile Pineapple to keep it in business.

2019: LeVecke deems Haliimaile Pineapple turnaround a success and contemplates expansion.

ML&P reports doubts about its ability to continue

KAPALUA – Financial challenges facing Maui Land & Pineapple Co. are raising a “substantial doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” the company reports in its latest filing with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.

Among a number of disclosures in the filing, a group of lenders has declared that a $280.5 million loan for the Kapalua Bay Holdings’ construction of the The Ritz-Carlton Club and Residences, Kapalua Bay is in default. ML&P has invested more than $50 million in cash and $25 million in land for the development project and has 51 percent ownership in the Bay Holdings company.

“The company’s cash outlook for the next 12 months and its ability to continue to meet its financial covenants is highly dependent on selling certain real estate assets in a difficult market,” the filing says. “If the company is unable to meet its financial covenants resulting in the borrowings becoming immediately due, the company would not have sufficient liquidity to repay such outstanding borrowings.”

While the company’s future appears ominous in its SEC filing, Tim Esaki, the company’s financial officer, said Friday that company officials “remain optimistic.”

Farmers say tax changes pose threat

MAKAWAO – Upcountry farmers said this week that they have concerns about proposals to change the way agricultural lands are taxed.

A number of landowners said any changes that increased what they pay in property taxes could put small farmers and ranchers out of business. Others questioned how the proposal would affect people who stop farming because of old age.

“I’m retired, and I’m worried about how we’re going to afford this,” said former persimmon farmer Blanche Ito. “All of a sudden, we’re faced with this new bill that might increase my taxes, and that concerns me.”

Ito was among around 40 residents who attended a special meeting of the Maui County Council Budget and Finance Committee on Monday night at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao.

The committee is considering legislation that would tax the land under a home on an agricultural lot in the same way as a regular residential property.

Currently, an agricultural house lot is taxed as a percentage of the larger parcel’s total value, often resulting in a significantly lower amount than what a similar lot in a residential neighborhood would be worth. Council members have said the measure would be a first step in bringing more equity to the property tax system.

But several testifiers questioned that idea.

Maui County Farm Bureau Presents Maui Ag Day

The Maui County Farm Bureau (MCFB) will present the second annual Maui Ag Day with a focus on “Understanding Food Safety Certification” on Friday, Aug. 26, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Hāli‘imaile Pineapple Company located at 872 Hāli‘imaile Road.

The trade show, panel discussion, tour and parking are free and open to the general public.

The day opens with the trade show and continental breakfast. At 9 a.m., the event will feature a Food Safety Certification Panel Presentation by three Maui farmers who have completed the Food Safety Certification process: Heidi Watanabe of Watanabe Processing, Geoff Haines of Pacific Produce and Brian Igersheim of Hāli‘imaile Pineapple Co. At 10:30 a.m., tour of Hāli‘imaile Pineapple Company facilities and pineapple fields. A Grown on Maui lunch will be provided to MCFB members at 11:45 a.m.; non-members may purchase lunch.

Tougher penalties, product tracking considered to curb agriculture crimes

Fighting farm theft and vandalism is getting a closer look by state officials in the wake of high-profile cases.

Tougher penalties, rural neighborhood watch and product tracking from field to vendor are among the ideas to combat a growing and troublesome trend.

Whether it’s theft of produce or vandalism on a massive scale, agricultural crime is becoming center on the state’s radar.

“It was the vandalism that really led to all of the interest, because we’ve have three incidents that we know of, so it’s kind of building,” said State Agriculture Director Russell Kokubun.

The crimes range from brazen papaya crop destruction on Oahu and the Big Island, to pineapple theft on Maui.

“We’ve had probably one or two pickups a day stolen out of 1350 acres, that’s a lot,” says Doug MacCluer of Haliimaile Pineapple Co.

Maui Ag Day to focus on food safety certification

HALIIMAILE – The Maui County Farm Bureau will host the second annual Maui Ag Day with a focus on understanding food safety certification from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at Haliimaile Pineapple Co.

The trade show, a panel presentation on food safety, tour and parking are free. That event will be held at 872 Haliimaile Road.

A “Grown on Maui” lunch is free for Maui County Farm Bureau members. There is a fee for nonmembers.

Those planning to attend should RSVP by Wednesday. For more information, send email to warrenmcfb@hot mail.com or call 243-2290.

Maui Ag Day to focus on food safety certification – Mauinews.com | News, Sports, Jobs, Visitor’s Information – The Maui News

Pine venture afloat after first year

A year ago, Haliimaile Pineapple Co., the employee-driven farm picked up the pieces of the failed Maui Pineapple Co., and reopened with a new name and renewed commitment to grow pineapple.

Vice President Rudy Balala confirmed, “We just finished the one year. We had some up-and-down times, but overall we’ve had good support from Hawaii customers. And our Mainland customers too, they have hung with us.”

The company employs 83 people.

Friday was an extra day for picking to accommodate a field that had ripened earlier than expected.

Pine venture afloat after first year – Mauinews.com | News, Sports, Jobs, Visitor’s Information – The Maui News

Haliimaile Pineapple topic of Rotary talk

KIHEI – Doug Schenk, a director of the Haliimaile Pineapple Co., will speak at the 7:30 a.m. meeting Wednesday of the Rotary Club of Kihei Sunrise.

He will discuss the “rebirth” of pineapple on the Valley Isle. As a locally owned and operated successor to Maui Pineapple Co., Haliimaile Pineapple Co. is trying to fill the void left by Maui Pine, which closed in 2009, a release said.

The breakfast meeting convenes at the Five Palms restaurant at the Mana Kai Maui Resort in Kihei. The cost of breakfast is $17. The meeting is open to the public.

For more information, call President Ed Corbett at 264-3468 or see www.kiheirotary.org.

Scope of isle farm labor abuse case widens

The exploitation of impoverished Thai farm workers by a Los Angeles-based labor contractor went on for longer than federal prosecutors had previously disclosed and involved more workers and more growers in more states, including Del Monte and Aloun Farms on Oahu and a macadamia nut farm on the Big Island, according to a federal indictment unsealed yesterday.

The indictment, an update to one returned last September, adds more charges of forced labor and related offenses against labor contractor Global Horizons Manpower Inc. owner Mordechai Yosef Orian and five alleged co-conspirators, officers in his company and recruiters in Thailand. The new indictment adds two more Global Horizons officers as defendants.

Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou are facing separate federal forced-labor charges for actions unrelated to Global Horizons.

Last September’s indictment said Orian, 45, an Israeli national, and his co-conspirators exploited about 400 Thai workers in forced-labor conditions from May 2004 to September 2005. It named only one property where the workers were allegedly confined and forced to work, the valley isle’s now-defunct Maui Pineapple Farm.