WAILUKU – Although the demise of pineapple growing on Maui did not come as a surprise Tuesday, the announcement that Maui Pineapple Co. would stop operating by the end of this year brought sadness and nostalgia about the end of an era.
"This is very sad news for our community, especially for the employees and their families who will be affected," said Mayor Charmaine Tavares, who recalled working in pineapple fields during summer months. "Agricultural fields are part of our heritage and have been a foundation for our island’s history. For nearly a hundred years, the company’s pineapple operations have made our community’s character unique. Working in our pineapple fields has been a source of income for many families, where high school teenagers spent their summers and where multiple members of a family worked in different parts of the operations."
As many as 285 company employees will lose their jobs, Maui Land & Pineapple Co. announced.
The mayor said the county’s Office of Economic Development has begun working with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and private entities to provide help to displaced workers through job fairs, training, counseling and assistance with the unemployment.
Tavares said the shutdown was a sign of the global economy, and Maui’s difficulty competing with cheaper pineapple in Costa Rica and the Philippines.
"I feel very, very sad for the employees. A lot of them are generations of employees, their grandparents worked for the company," she said.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye said: "Our sputtering economy continues to hurt longtime Hawaii institutions, and the loss of Maui Pine impacts the lives and families of 285 workers.
"Since the company went public in 1969, it has served as a vital cog in our local economy," Inouye said. "I stand ready to direct whatever federal assistance the law allows, and I will continue to do all I can in Washington to ensure that the federal government is supporting the local economy as best as it can during these turbulent economic times."
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono said: "My heart goes out to the ML&P workers and their families. I stand ready to do whatever I can to assist the displaced ML&P workers."
Maui County Council Member Gladys Baisa recalled that her first job as a nurse was for Maui Pine, at the company’s Haliimaile dispensary. She called Tuesday’s announcement "heartbreaking."
"It’s another end of another era," she said. "I know the company tried very hard to prevent this and find somebody to take over the ag operations, but they haven’t been successful. It’s devastating."
She said she was most concerned for the workers who would be displaced by the shutdown and will enter a tough job market.
"In another time, we could have talked about transition," she said. "But at this point, it’s so difficult because what else is out there?"
Council Member Mike Molina said the pineapple plantation’s closure was not unexpected.
"Even with the economy the way it is, it really was not a big surprise that it would happen," he said. "It’s affecting everybody. I am hoping the company can find a way to rehire some of these people."
Molina recalled working in pineapple fields as a young man.
"I never thought I would see this day come, when pineapple stopped," he said. "A lot of people who were born and raised on Maui have an emotional bond to pineapple and sugar, and to see this happen to pineapple, it’s sad. It played such a big part in many people’s lives on this island. It’s almost like losing a member of one’s family, because it played such a great part. I can see why it would be such an emotional loss."
Maui Farm Bureau Executive Director Warren Watanabe said the decision was disappointing.
"We had hoped they would continue their operation," he said. "I think it’s a sad indication of where Hawaii agriculture is – with the closing of Gay & Robinson on Kauai, also. It just demonstrates how difficult it is to farm and ranch in Hawaii."
The community needs to support essential tools for farmers, such as access to water and land, in order for agriculture to succeed, he said.
"The plantation type of agriculture gets criticized, but we need those larger farms also," he said. "We don’t believe you can sustain agriculture just with small farms. You need a mix."
Big plantations support smaller farms by helping make shipment for supplies like fertilizer affordable, he said.
Joe Bradley, chairman of the Maui Chamber of Commerce and publisher of The Maui News, said, "It’s a really sad day for Maui."
He said Maui’s business community hopes Maui Land & Pine has a successful restructuring.
"They are a very, very valuable employer on Maui," he said.
Maui Visitors Bureau Executive Director Terryl Vencl said the company’s announcement is "indicative of the world we live in right now."
"There’s so many things affecting us that are out of our control," she said. "It’s horrifying news to hear that we will have more people laid off in our community. That’s a very sad thing, and our hearts go out to them."
Maui Hotel & Lodging Association Executive Director Carol Reimann said she was pleased that Outrigger would be taking over management of the Kapalua Villas.
"They’ve been struggling for some time, so I think it’ll be good for a new management company to come in and help them run it because they have a great product out there. Outrigger can definitely help with the marketing outreach."
On a personal level, Reimann, who worked more than 20 years at Kapalua, said it was very sad to see the changes at the company.
"A lot of my friends are there, and I really feel terrible about what’s going on out there," she said. "It’s really sad to see."
That sentiment was shared by state Sen. Roz Baker, who represents residents of West and South Maui.
"This is such a sad turn of events for a long-standing kamaaina company," she said. "It’s a sad day in Maui’s history."
"You hate to see some of the bad decisions in the past cause this," she added, noting the previous administration of David Cole, who led the company in its final years until the end of last year.
"My heart goes out to the workers," Baker said. "It’s a dark day for agriculture in our state and Maui in particular . . . We are making it more difficult for us to achieve any kind of sustainability."
Baker wondered about the future of the company and what it was going to do with its agriculture lands.
State Rep. Joe Bertram III, who represents South Maui in the state House, said he was surprised to hear pineapple cultivation was ending on Maui.
"It’s such a shocker," he said. "I knew (former owners) the Camerons. My family’s first job was in the cannery.
"I know they have been going through some problems," Bertram said. But "they have been around forever. You imagine they will last forever."
State Rep. Joe Souki, whose House district includes Wailuku, Kahakuloa and Waikapu, worried that Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. might be next. With the demise of Maui Pine, HC&S will be the last major plantation on Maui.
"If they don’t have sufficient water, they close down," he said, referring to a move to restore natural surface water flows in West and East Maui to streams diverted for sugar plantation irrigation.
"I’m very sorry for the company and for the employees who are losing their jobs," he said of Maui Pine’s shutdown.
"It’s going to further hurt the economy," he said. "It’s another nail in the coffin."
State Rep. Mele Carroll, whose district covers East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said the end of Maui Pine is "a great loss to our community."
"Our pineapple agricultural industry has been a lifetime with Hawaii," she said.
Carroll said policymakers will need to rethink the state’s approach to agriculture to "create win-win situations . . . so everyone can prosper."
Central Maui state Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran said he was "saddened to hear that another of Hawaii’s signature businesses is coming to a close."
"I’m especially concerned about the 285 Maui residents who will be losing their jobs, and I am hoping that the state administration will mobilize to provide services and information to them to help with the transition," he said.
* Staff writers Ilima Loomis, Melissa Tanji, Kekoa Enomoto and Brian Perry contributed to this story.