A last blessing

Workers band together to bring in cane as A&B head predicts a ‘quilt’ of crops in the future

A&B President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Benjamin addresses HC&S workers during a blessing ceremony at Puunene Mill. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

PUUNENE — After photos were snapped and the crowd of shaka-waving workers cleared out, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. employees Brady Borg and Donnie Tablang stayed behind, absorbed in a discussion over the leafy green stalks of cane that had been cut for Tuesday’s season-opening blessing.

“The closer together the nodes are, that means there was a drought. The longer they are, that means you get plenty water,” 31-year veteran Borg said, adding that the nearly 12-foot tall purplish stalk with notches several inches apart appeared well-watered.

As HC&S opens its 144th and final sugar harvest, decades of sugar cane knowledge are being boiled down into the last efforts of an industry that will disappear from Maui’s fields in a matter of months.

On Jan. 6, parent company Alexander & Baldwin announced that it would shut down HC&S’ 36,000 acres of sugar operations — the last in the state — at the end of this year’s harvest, after its agribusiness sector sustained $30 million in losses. The 675 HC&S employees will be cut to 15 by the end of the year. Despite an uncertain future for many, workers have thrown themselves headlong into off season preparation.

“True to form, you all stepped up and . . . rather than quitting, you said, ‘Let’s make this the best harvest ever,’ “ A&B President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Benjamin said at Tuesday’s early-morning blessing. “It’s showtime. We’re ready to start the final harvest of sugar cane here at HC&S.”

Chris Benjamin

Gathered behind the Puunene Mill, hundreds of workers stood beside massive cane haulers already packed with charred, harvested stalks. Clad in hard hats and mud-caked jeans, they listened as Keala Church of Maui Pastor Greg Shepard said a prayer and sprinkled water on the damp earth.

“This is going to be passed down from generation to generation,” Shepard said. “You will be a landmark. You will be the one to pass down stories of this plantation.”

On a sunny, blue-skied day like Tuesday, with great conditions for harvesting, it was easy to feel optimistic, Benjamin said after the blessing.

“Every year, this day means a new beginning,” Benjamin said. “Even though this is the final harvest, I feel the optimism is still appropriate. . . . It’s not yet the time for sadness.”

For welding shop supervisor Gerard Cambra, a Makawao resident and 35-year veteran of HC&S, the first day of harvest is exhilarating for reasons other than the chance to harvest cane.

Members of Puunene Mill’s welding crew pose with a stalk of cane after the conclusion of a brief blessing ceremony marking the start of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s 144th and last sugar harvest. Holding the stalk is Loreto Cabalse. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“It means I get my life back,” he said, grinning. “I’ve been working seven days a week since the fourth of January. I haven’t had a day off.”

Employees like Cambra have spent a harried two-month offseason repairing and preparing the equipment that will run the whole factory for the next year. Cambra, a born-and-raised Mauian whose father was a cane field division overseer in Paia, said that for now, he’s focusing his energies on the present harvest.

“I haven’t given (the future) a whole lot of thought,” he said. “I’m concentrating on having a good year. I’m taking it one day at a time.”

Before the harvest season can begin, the mill’s agricultural research department checks cane samples to determine which fields are ready, harvesting manager Mark Lopes said. Once a ripened field is selected, workers cut a fire line around the lot to protect the irrigation system and isolate the cane during burning. After the cane has been burned, it’s raked into windrows and loaded into cane haulers by an excavator fitted with a 60-foot boom and dangling claw, that unlike the arcade prize machine it resembles, is much better at gripping the goods.

“It’s mining equipment that we’ve converted to cane haulers,” Lopes said.

Outside the factory, where a sickly sweet scent hangs thick in the air, cane haulers wait their turn to dump out the first harvest of 2016. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Up until November or December, workers will burn and harvest 60 to 80 acres a day, Lopes said. Each week, HC&S has a ripening meeting to prioritize fields for burning. Planning is crucial; burn too much, and the mill could be left with a backlog of cane.

“The longer sugar cane stays out after burning, it starts to decline, and you lose sugar, you lose juice quality,” Lopes said.

After being unloaded from trucks and traveling up a conveyor, the cane is sent through a “sink flow” that washes the cane and separates it from “rocks, mud, sand, cars and motorcycles,” said Robert Luuwai, vice president of factory operations. These days Luuwai is joking when he mentions the last two, but in the past, people have set fire to abandoned vehicles in the fields and left cane workers to deal with the metal remains, he said.

Once inside the heavily humid factory, the sugar cane travels through a collection of roaring metal machinery that bumps, rolls, shreds and squeezes it to rupture the cells and extract the sucrose. It undergoes the same process in four identical mills, which Luuwai said helps obtain the optimum amount of sugar. The four-mill set-up extracts 95.5 percent of the sugar from the cane, Luuwai said.

Finally, it’s boiled to a viscous liquid that is sent to a centrifuge to separate the molasses from the sugar.

Mark Lopes

Outside the factory, where a sickly sweet scent hangs thick in the air, cane haulers wait their turn to dump out the first harvest of 2016. Like many of the employees, driver Elmer Magbual smiles broadly as he talks about his work.

He started ploughing fields for HC&S 35 years ago and now drives the massive cane haulers that cart the crops from the fields. The behemoth he operates is unlike anything back home, he said.

“In the Philippines, we use carabao (water buffalo). No more this kind job,” he said, laughing.

Magbual added that after this year, he’ll “maybe go holoholo, maybe I’ll visit family in the Philippines.”

While workers exhibited good spirits on opening day, James Freitas admitted he was sad to see it all end.

Malcolm Hoopii leaves the final harvest blessing with plans for a stalk of sugar cane that was used as decoration. He said he planned to take it home and put it in the ground. “I’m going to grow this thing,” he said. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Working here so many years, you see what goes on,” he said, leaning against the door to the mill where he’s spent the last 12 years of his life. “Everybody works like a family. Everybody treats each other like family.”

The born-and-raised Upcountry resident started as a millwright and now does construction and maintenance for the company. He said A&B has employed four generations of his mother’s side of the family in both sugar and ranching, and has provided opportunities for him as well.

“This place gave me a good job. That’s why I’m still here,” he said, adding that after the season, he plans to move to Las Vegas, where his parents live.

“If I have to start all over, I might as well go somewhere new,” he said.

When Benjamin is asked what he envisions looking out at the windswept fields in the future, the A&B president said “it’s not going to be one solid blanket” anymore.

“It’s going to be a quilt, a patchwork of different crops,” he said.

A&B is testing crops and running pasture trials as it makes plans to transition to a diversified agricultural model, Benjamin said. The company is entertaining ideas of growing energy and food crops, supporting the local cattle industry and developing an agricultural park to be used by small farmers. HC&S employees would be given preference to lease lots to start their own farming operations, the company said upon announcing the end of sugar in January.

“It’s not going to be this time next year, but I’m optimistic these are not the last crops we’ll see in Central Maui,” Benjamin said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

Originally published March 2, 2016