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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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