‘End of an era’

Workers, retirees, officials gather as HC&S’ last load of sugar cane arrives at Puunene Mill

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. driver Fermin Domingo guides Maui’s last load of harvested sugar cane to the Puunene Mill’s unloading station Monday morning as employees, retirees, media and others capture the historic moment with their cameras.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. driver Fermin Domingo guides Maui’s last load of harvested sugar cane to the Puunene Mill’s unloading station Monday morning as employees, retirees, media and others capture the historic moment with their cameras. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

PUUNENE — Sugar workers, retirees and company officials expressed sadness as well as pride as they witnessed “an end of an era” Monday with the delivery of the last load of sugar cane from the fields to the Puunene Mill.

Fermin Domingo, a 40-year veteran of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., received the honor of driving the ti-leaf adorned Tournahauler full of sugar cane stalks one last time to be unloaded at the Puunene Mill.

The 61-year-old sugar worker was honored and surprised to be chosen, noting that he was selected because he was the Tournahauler driver with the most experience on staff. (He’s been driving since 1982).

Domingo didn’t cry but came close.

“I tried to hold ’em,” he said after his historic drive, captured by many media outlets and live streamed over the internet.

Former HC&S employees Teddy Espeleta (right) and Frank Nakoa greet each other before Monday’s ceremony marking the last haul of sugar cane from the fields.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Former HC&S employees Teddy Espeleta (right) and Frank Nakoa greet each other before Monday’s ceremony marking the last haul of sugar cane from the fields. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

While Domingo was bringing in the last of the cane, 23-year sugar worker Peter Walsh watched the action from one of the mill platforms.

“End of an era,” he said as he wiped away a tear and watched the Tournahauler make its final stop at the mill.

“There goes the hauler, empty,” said Walsh, a crew chief in charge of field preparation, as he watched Domingo finally leave the mill, tracking mud left behind from the weekend’s heavy rains.

Before departing the mill, Domingo made several runs around the muddy cane drop-off area so the plethora of media could take some final shots. Several times, mill workers sounded an air whistle, normally used to signal the Tournahauler driver to unload the cane.

But this time, the air whistle was an aloha, accompanied by the cheers of mill workers. It was a way to say goodbye to the 145-year-old sugar company, the last one in the state, that helped many local families put to food on their tables and to send their children to college.

Monday’s last delivery of harvested sugar cane is captured for history at Puunene Mill.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Monday’s last delivery of harvested sugar cane is captured for history at Puunene Mill. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

HC&S’ nearly 36,000 acres of cane created a blanket of green, which could be seen from the air and alongside Maui’s roadways. Its smokestacks at the mill provided a landmark and a weather vane based on the direction of the smoke. Also to disappear, but probably not to be missed, will be the periodic stench of old cane water that filled the air in Kahului during irrigation.

The sugar industry with its sights, sounds and smells will depart the Maui scene.

Monday’s last haul offered a symbolic end to the sugar era on Maui — once home to plantations from Hana to Lahaina — and throughout Hawaii’s major islands. HC&S’ Puunene Mill will shut its doors Dec. 23.

In announcing the closure in January, parent company Alexander & Baldwin cited $30 million in losses in 2015 in its agribusiness sector with a future of more “significant losses” that company officials called unsustainable.

HC&S’ 675-member workforce has been dwindling since March, with employees laid off as specific operations ceased. Currently, there are 370 employees, 350 of whom will be officially laid off Dec. 30.

The Moku Pahu, or “sugar ship,” is loading its final shipment this week at Kahului Harbor. The mill’s stack will stop puffing smoke sometime this weekend, HC&S said.

About 1,000 people attended Monday’s invitation-only event. The group included federal, state and county government and community leaders and the media, along with retirees, some of whom traveled from the Mainland, and current employees.

“Today’s here. Like many of you, I feel sadness, but I also have an overwhelming feeling and sense of pride and gratefulness and appreciation for having had the honor and privilege to work with and learn from some amazing men and women,” HC&S General Manager Rick Volner told the standing-room-only crowd under a tent near the mill. “It is said without rain, there can be no rainbow. Today, I’m not focusing on the rain, I’m celebrating the rainbow.”

Like many Mauians, Volner is a product of the plantation. His great-great-grandparents of Portuguese ancestry on his mother’s side worked for the plantation. His grandmother, Rita Santos, was a lab analyst at the Puunene Mill.

“Hard to imagine five generations later, HC&S is all that remains of Hawaii’s historic sugar industry. After today, plantation-style sugar in Hawaii will be no more,” Volner said.

“But the industry and HC&S leaves behind a tremendous legacy. Look around you, so many of our community members and leaders are products of sugar,” he said. “So many of us enjoy home ownership and higher education because of the sacrifices and hard work of those that came before us, that better life our ancestors were looking for when they got on that boat.”

Volner said he will miss seeing his fellow co-workers while shopping — and not recognizing them because at work they are covered from head to toe in their field clothing to protect them from the harsh elements.

He said that he will miss meeting workers at Taketa Hill and other places that only plantation workers know.

“Even as HC&S ceases to exist, you will continue to be the heart and soul of the Maui community,” Volner said.

A&B President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Benjamin, who once served as general manager at HC&S, said that he wanted to focus on the triumphs of the sugar industry, including the engineering work of its founders and how the plantation shaped Hawaii with its melting pot of ethnicities by bringing in immigrant laborers.

After the program, Benjamin said many workers came up to thank him, though he really wanted to thank them for their service. The company tried its best to sustain sugar operations.

“We gave it everything we had,” he said.

The plantation came close to a shutting down in 2009, when HC&S sustained $30 million in losses,  similar to losses last year. However, the company was able to improve its bottom line that year to survive.

That was not the case this time around. Sugar is cheaper to produce elsewhere around the world and costs, including fertilizer, have risen. Sugar operations also have faced opposition locally for cane burning and water diversions.

Many retirees from field to office workers came back to visit their old company. One of those was 83-year-old Larry Batan of Sacramento, Calif., a former chief mechanic in the machine shop. His daughter, Elizabeth Batan, 30, of Washington, D.C., accompanied her father so that he could see his old workplace and friends “for the last time.”

It wasn’t cheap for the family to fly out, but when the younger Batan found out that the plantation was closing and that her father wanted to see his friends, she was all in.

“He sent three of my siblings and I to school” by working on the plantation, she said.

Also joining the ceremony was 61-year-old Frank Nakoa, who worked at the plantation and grew up in Puunene’s McGerrow Camp and swam at the nearby swimming pool that has since been torn down.

“It just feels so sad. I never thought at 145 years old they would close,” he said as former co-workers and retirees came up to him to say hello.

His grandfather worked in the mill and crystalized sugar. His father was a tractor operator. Nakoa drove Tournahaulers.

“For me, the plantation closing down, it hurts. Now a lot of guys are are left without a job,” he said.

One of those who will be losing his job is Walsh, who said he raised four boys by working at HC&S.

He started at the plantation 23 years ago and now is a crew chief in charge of field preparations. Walsh said he’ll never forget his first day.

“It was interesting. It was all new,” he said. “I love the team effort.”

It takes the entire planation ohana working together to go from planting to harvesting, then “putting the sugar on the boat,” he said. Walsh said that he has learned even more about the plantation in the last few weeks.

“Every field has a story,” he said.

As for the mill, HC&S has not decided what will come of it and its equipment, Volner said after the program. The company is looking to see if there are buyers for some of the equipment, though that may entail taking apart the mill if certain pieces are sold. Nothing is certain yet, he added.

The last haul signals the end of sugar cane growing on Maui. So what does the future hold?

“Rather than a blanket of sugar cane, we’ll have a quilt of different crops,” Benjamin said. “It will be cattle pastures, it will be some diversified ag. . . . I’m hoping there will be energy crops. It’s a big plantation. It will be a steady process. It’s not going to happen overnight.

“That quilt is going to be sewn over several years.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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