BY RON YOUNGBLOOD
Doug Schenk met the visitors with the kind of smile that radiates from a father showing off his newborn. In the background, Hali’imaile Pineapple Co. employees ate lunch after polishing off the morning’s work two hours ahead of schedule.
At the door of the old parts warehouse, two men who look younger than their years stood in dirty boots and T-shirts.
“These are the guys who run the operation,” Schenk said with affection. The company president is Darren Strand. Rudy Balala is the vice president. They are also partners in the farm, along with Schenk and Doug MacCluer. All are Maui Land & Pineapple Co. veterans. The other partners are Pardee Erdman and Ed Chenchin.
The aroma of plate lunches wafted out of the tin-sided warehouse. In the back of the picnic tables there’s a conference table.
“We meet every Monday to decide that week’s goals,” Strand said.
“All of our employees asked to come to work for Hali’imaile,” Schenk said. All were part of the work force when Maui Pine closed down Dec. 31, 2009. “We were still working out the details (of leasing ML&P equipment and fields) on the last day of the year. We took New Year’s Day off and were on the job the next day.”
“We’ve got the greatest people in the world,” Schenk said. “There’s no division of labor. Everyone does everything.” That apparently also goes for the bosses. Later in the morning, President Strand made a run into town to pick up irrigation line fittings and then delivered them to a field after an on-the-fly conference with Balala.
“We (at Maui Pine) used to think putting in irrigation for 1.5 acres in a day was reasonable. One of our workers covered 4 acres in a morning.”
In return, the 75 workers get good wages, $11.20 an hour on the low end and $3.75 more on the high end. The salary and benefits were worked out with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Keeping the company small is all a part of the plan.
So far, Hali’imaile has packed and sold a half-million cases of six or seven pineapples, depending on the size. “We don’t throw any away,” Balala said. In the interest of full disclosure, he said only 100 cases haven’t been sold.
Schenk said the larger, pretty fruit stays in the islands. “Local buyers know their pineapple.” Smaller, green Maui Gold fruit that is just as sweet goes to the Mainland. They’ve sold 175 cases in New York City, where each pineapple sells for $18 or $19.
“Hawaii comes first,” Schenk said. “If we have extra, we sell on the Mainland.” Japan has cleared Hali’imaile pine for sale. Japanese pay premium prices for premium fruit. That will come later.
It’s all part of the game plan – lower volume with higher quality assured by pride.
Maizie Sanford, the granddaughter and daughter of the two men who split Maui Pine off from A&B’s Maui Agriculture Co., was anxious to see the packing operation and ready to put money into Hali’imaile, if and when the partners were ready to take on new investors.
Every effort is made to make sure the pineapples get to the packing cases undamaged. In the field, the fruit is put on conveyors gently. At the top of the conveyor, two men put them into large boxes “like eggs,” Schenk said.
At the front of the packing operation, the boxes – similar to the ones that were used by the independent farmers – are lowered into a square vat of water. The fruit floats up and is moved along by a current of water until it hits a conveyor that puts one pineapple into a slot for the journey into the packing area.
While the visitors were taken around, Schenk introduced nearly every worker by name to the visitors. He was proud of the fact the packing line was set up so there is no lifting. The packers need only slide each 25-pound case around.
At the end of the line, an automatic machine stacks the cases on the highest quality pallets I’ve ever seen. “It’s all a part of selling a quality product,” Schenk said. “We even make some of them ourselves.”
“We should break even or make a little profit this year,” Schenk said.
The future of Hali’imaile Pineapple Co. sits on three solid legs – pride, quality and experience. Outside the packing warehouse, the sun was shining. Maui has ideal growing conditions, according to Strand, and it appears the island and pineapple will be linked far into the future.
Maizie was thrilled.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.