The 25-passenger van slammed into a deep trench. Rotarians and court reporters bounced out of their seats. The abused van’s windows rattled while keeping heat and dust at bay. A small air conditioner at the rear of the vehicle provided marginal cooling.
Driver Tony Vierra – one of only two men allowed to take Roberts Hawaii vans into the fields – tried to miss the biggest holes in the sugar fields’ “roads,” but there was no way to avoid them all. The benign jostling and, later, the heat in the mill were the most uncomfortable parts of a slick, six-hour Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. tour Saturday.
It began at 8 a.m. in a conference room in the old Puunene headquarters. Despite the hour, tour coordinator Linda Howe radiated city energy. She and agronomist Mae Nakahata had come over from Alexander & Baldwin’s Honolulu headquarters. Howe attended to the sign-in sheets, name tags, liability waivers and menus for lunch.
The Rotarians were from Kihei. The court reporters had come to Maui for a meeting of the Court Stenographers and Captioners Association. It was a convivial group sincerely interested in learning more about HC&S. One Mainland retiree liked to talk about his experiences as an employee at a sugar beet operation. It was somewhat annoying and definitely off the point of the tour – lobbying on behalf of the sugar company via candid education. The syllabus centered on sustainability and the production of energy.
Nakahata took over once the group settled down with coffee and Aloha-canned juice and tea. The cans all were notated, in small letters, “Maui Sugar.” Nakahata was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic evangelist for HC&S.
She gave a familiar history of the company founded by Samuel T. Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin in 1870. Nakahata said the fact A&B’s sugar operations on Maui have lasted 130 years is the definition of sustainable agriculture.
“We are working hard to stay in business,” she said. “We won’t go away.”
All of HC&S’ infrastructure was developed between 1890 and 1933.
Until they were phased out, the company built and maintained 62 camps scattered through the fields. The camps came down after workers were unionized and bought a $7,000 house and lot in the “Dream City.” The A&B development makes up residential Kahului, the largest town on the island.
“We’ve lost more land to highways than to development.” The expansion of Mokulele Highway consumed 70 acres. HC&S had 27,000 acres declared important ag land, which cannot be developed, according to state law.
HC&S has 35,000 acres under cultivation. All but 2,600 acres is owned by A&B. The company leases 1,450 acres from the state and 1,150 from Wailuku Water Co.
An inability to satisfy Environmental Protection Agency regulations was the big element in driving C. Brewer out of sugar on Maui. HC&S wastewater from the mill is used to irrigate fields around Puunene, mostly via one sprinkler an acre.
Twenty percent of the sugar has been developed for energy use. During and after World War I, the company ran all of its vehicles on ethanol.
Cane isn’t left on the ground for more than 24 hours so it won’t lose its sugar content. That means a 24/7 harvest operation. Cane has a growing life of two years, nine months.
HC&S has an apprentice program that trains machinists and mechanics. Many of them soon leave to work in hotel and resort maintenance. “We machine all of our own equipment.”
Drip irrigation was developed in Israel, but HC&S was the first to use it on row crops. The buried pipes feed the roots of the plant. Using the system allowed the company to plant an additional 4,000 acres.
The field part of the tour included visiting a seed-cane field. The cutter is a two-level affair with one cutter taking off the tops and two others cutting stalks at the bottom. Both cutters are metal disks with brush-cutter blades welded on.
Ranchers can gather seed-field trash if they supply the labor. The rest of the trash is left on the field to build up the soil. Molasses can be purchased at the mill for $100 a ton. Combined, they make suitable cattle feed.
Next week, electricity from the flow of irrigation ditches and 110-year-old machinery still being used in the “factory.”
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