Days of 'King Sugar' Are at an End

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Reed Travel Features

HONOLULU -- The plantation culture that shaped the Hawaii we know today is rapidly disappearing.

Oahu's last sugar mill closed in October; the Big Island's last in March.

In a little over two years, sugar has disappeared from Oahu's Ewa Plains and north shore; the Big Island's Hamakua and Kau coasts, and Koloa on Kauai, site of Hawaii's first successful commercial sugar plantation, begun in 1835.

Television news has been dominated several times a year by footage of huge cane trucks, horns blowing, bringing in the last harvests.

There are interviews in communities, some in isolated areas with little chance of new jobs, and the end of an era is declared.

Sugar, though, has been declining for decades.

Hawaii, which once boasted more than 100 sugar plantations, had a dozen left a decade ago.

Now, only four sugar plantations, with six mills, remain -- two on Maui (which, fortunately, has seen no closures in more than a decade) and two on Kauai.

Sugar acreage harvested dropped from 83,600 in 1986 to 43,000 last year, which included the last harvests of two plantations that closed.

Many reasons account for the decline, but they all point to the increasing unprofitability of sugar.

Raw sugar prices have been stagnant for a decade, and Hawaii has the world's highest- paid plantation workers.

Competition from beet- and corn-sugar growers increased while federal sugar subsidies declined.

High shipping costs are a factor. In addition, Hawaii has no refinery. Its raw sugar is refined in California.

Sugar companies are experimenting with new crops -- from seed corn and alfalfa to papaya and macadamia nuts -- and have leased cane land to former employees for truck farming.

Forestry companies have started taking an interest. The Hawaii of the future could have a timber industry.

Today, more coffee is grown on Kauai alone than in Kona, which is famous for its beans. Coffee estates are developing on Maui and Molokai, too.

In a recent editorial, the Honolulu Advertiser, the city's morning daily, lamented that weeds were growing in abandoned sugar fields, which could be disastrous for tourism.

It urged the state Legislature to support new agricultural enterprises and the land's continued productivity.

Hawaii always has been a one-industry economy.

First, it was sandalwood, in the early 19th century; then whaling; sugar, starting in the 1850s, then tourism.

Tourism, which brings in $10 billion a year, overtook federal and military spending as the top money earner in the early 1970s.

Sugar, now way down the list, remains the top agricultural product, bringing in $150 million a year.

Its big boost came in 1875 after King Kalakaua negotiated the Reciprocity Treaty, which allowed sugar into the U.S. without import duties.

With sugar growth came demand for labor.

The first Chinese plantation workers arrived in 1852; the first Japanese, in 1868.

Other groups arrived over the years -- Koreans, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, small numbers from many other European countries -- and the last major group, Filipinos, came from 1906 until as late as 1946.

After the treaty lapsed, Hawaii's economy plummeted, and merchants and sugar barons began to push for annexation to the U.S. (meaning a continuation of free entry for sugar).

The result was the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, followed by annexation in 1898.

Sugar continued to shape the economy and politics.

Republicans dominated from 1898 to 1954, when the Democratic Party -- evolving from a plantation-oriented labor movement -- gained control of the state Legislature.

Today, Hawaii continues to be much of a one-party state. Two Republicans and 23 Democrats were elected to the state Senate in November.

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