KAHULUI Mr. Pineapple – aka Jimmy Hutaff – needs 350 delicious Maui pineapples a day, and when Maui Pine closes down later this year, he doesn’t know where he will get them.
"That’s a good question," he said Wednesday, the day after Maui Land & Pineapple Co. announced it would shut down its money-losing plantation.
It isn’t that there isn’t pineapple in Hawaii. Dole farms about 2,700 acres on Oahu, about the same size operation as Maui Pine has been running.
"It’s not the same," said Hutaff, who sells fresh fruit, as well as lei and jams and jellies on Dairy Road, catching tourists leaving the island on their way to the airport.
Mr. Pineapple offers a "Pineapple Challenge," which Hutaff describes as similar to the "Pepsi Challenge," and Maui Gold fruit usually wins. "Maui Gold seems a little bit better," he said.
Maui Pine, Dole and (long gone) Del Monte developed the sweet Gold variety cooperatively. The same variety was grown by the three companies, but growing conditions and practices do affect the flavor, as does the season of the year. Winter fruits are sweeter, summer more acid.
Maui County’s director of water supply, Jeff Eng, is a graduate food technologist, and one of his earlier jobs was at Maui Pine, where he had to try to even out the sweetness/acidity ratio so that the canned product would have a uniform flavor.
Hutaff said that he doesn’t know where he will turn to to keep his business operating, but he’s sure something will come up. "I’m trying to be optimistic," he said.
He cannot just ask some small farmer to plant some pineapples for him. There are problems of scale to consider.
Production varies by season, so to guarantee 350 fruit a day when output is low, a farmer would have to produce many more at other times of the year.
And the germ line matters, too. Doug MacCluer, a retired Maui Pine agronomist, said it is not clear whether Maui Pine would license or otherwise make available its proprietary genetic line to other growers.
ML&P Chief Financial Officer John Durkin said that management has been focused on Maui Pine and hasn’t thought about that yet, but it will. "We know there is some interest out there," and once the transition is complete, it will be addressed.
Theo Yamamura has been growing pineapple on contract for Maui Pine, and he has plants in the ground – an important point, since it takes two years from planting to first harvest. He declined to talk about his future as a pineapple farmer in Haiku.
It isn’t just growing fruit, said MacCluer. You have to have a plan to sell it.
Durkin said that Maui Pine made money on Maui and also on the Neighbor Islands, but that market "is very small."
Tish Uehara, the director of marketing at Armstrong Produce in Honolulu said that brokerage has moved about 5 million pounds a year of fresh pineapple to Oahu retailers in recent years, and between 2 million and 2.5 million pounds on Maui.
She noted that Armstrong is just one of several produce brokers.
Two million pounds is 1,000 tons, and that’s just a smidgen of the pine that was grown in Hawaii. In 2006, Hawaii produced 188,000 tons, according the the Department of Agriculture’s Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service.
"Almost 100 percent" of the pine that Armstrong dealt with on Maui was from Maui Pine, Uehara said. Armstrong is considering how to replace that source.
"You’ve got to have the acreage," said MacCluer, who, with some other pine veterans, attempted to put together a "spinoff" company that would have continued part of Maui Pine’s operations on a smaller scale. They were unable to obtain enough financial backing.
Besides growing, a pine operation on any but a backyard scale also requires a packing facility. The fruit is washed, given a spritz of bleach on the spot where the stem was cut (to inhibit decay) and graded.
"You have to have enough acreage and a sales plan," said MacCluer. "And know how to grow it."
* Harry Eagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.