Going for the Gold

KAHULUI – The local variety of pineapple known as Maui Gold was almost lost when Maui Land & Pineapple Co. decided to cease its century-old pineapple production in 2009. However, thanks to a handful of the industry’s “old-timers” – including former Maui Pineapple Co. President Doug Schenk, who lobbied with other executives to start their own pineapple business on Maui – residents, visitors and pineapple lovers may still enjoy one of the island’s sweetest icons.

Schenk and four other former Maui Pineapple executives formed Haliimaile Pineapple Co. and partnered with Ulupalakua Ranch’s Pardee Erdman in early 2010 to continue to grow and market fresh pineapple under the established Maui Gold brand.

Three years later, company officials say the business, which recently changed its name to Maui Gold Pineapple Co., is doing well, though there is still room for growth.

“Our business is pretty much break-even right now. It’s been three and a half years; we’re getting our traction,” Schenk said at a luncheon hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Maui on Thursday.

The company harvests up to 375,000 pounds of Maui Gold every week from its 1,350-acre Upcountry property on the slopes of Haleakala. The land is leased from ML&P.

Nearly a million 25-pound cases are produced every year, Schenk said. About 65 percent of the yield is sold on Maui, mainly to restaurants and businesses, while the rest is shipped to other islands, Los Angeles or Seattle.

The company employs 85 people, many of whom worked the fields when ML&P was still running production.

“We’re all in it because we like pineapple, and we considered it a duty almost when we heard they were going to close the 100-year-old company,” Schenk said.

“It (pineapple) is an important part of our economy. We had a pineapple plantation here for decades. They (ML&P) had built up a brand that was very well-known almost throughout the globe,” Maui County Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen said. “To have this fledgling company emerge from the ashes of the other company is miraculous and something that we on Maui should treasure and promote and help them along anyway we can. It would be such a shame if we had to purchase our own pineapples from Costa Rica or some other place like that.”

Keeping operations local has been no easy feat, especially when it is much cheaper to produce pineapple elsewhere, like Thailand, the Philippines or Brazil. Hawaii was once the world’s pineapple-producing capital. Now it produces less than 2 percent of the world’s supply, with much of it coming from Dole’s 3,000-acre farm in Wahiawa, Oahu.

“We’ve got a much better quality product than Dole, but they’re a much bigger operation, probably two or three times our size,” Schenk said. “So all the nuances of growing fruit and harvesting (are) really challenging on a smaller-scale operation.”

Still, the company has managed to keep debt to a minimum, Schenk said, by funding their operations from existing cash flow instead of going elsewhere to borrow money. Keeping a consistent and constant supply in the face of unpredictable climate and rain conditions has been a challenge that they, like all farmers, have had to address.

“We’re basically failing our way to success. We’ve made every mistake a grower can make, but we’re still in the game,” Schenk said.

The company has been working on diversifying its product base, exploring different types of juices and fresh fruit chunks in order to maximize sales, officials said.

“I don’t know what we’d be doing if we weren’t farming pineapple,” Darren Strand, Maui Gold Pineapple President and former ML&P executive, said. “We knew we had a good variety. We knew we were good farmers. We eliminated a lot of the fluff and focused on that core fresh fruit sales and growing fruit. It seems to be successful.

“We’re not ever going to make millions and millions of dollars, but we have the opportunity to be slightly profitable, continue ag and provide employment for a nice chunk of people on Maui,” he added.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.