Mill workers repair, rebuild equipment ahead of harvest time
PUUNENE — In the part of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. mill where the process begins to break down sugar cane stalks, millwrights are working on a piece of equipment that will run around the clock once the harvesting starts.
Called the knife, it has no blades but a fast-spinning, 7-ton core that ruptures the washed cane to cut it into smaller pieces that then go into the grinder.
“We rebuild this every year,” said Koa Martin, a millwright who has worked for the company for 20 years. “This is one of our front-line equipment. If this breaks, it’s at least a two-, three-day delay.”
With the shutdown of the plantation looming at the year’s end, Martin and other workers are focused on the regular offseason tasks of overhauling, refurbishing and repairing equipment.
Since the offseason began Jan. 4, some are working seven-hour days. Some days, which begin at 6 a.m., last 10 hours.
Martin and Carl Rackley are among millwrights who have taken on the annual task of rebuilding the knife. It’s a job that consumes four to five days and involves taking down walls that may not have been removed all year to lift the knife, which is 4 feet longer than the space it’s contained in.
“We have to take it out and turn it,” Martin said Thursday afternoon. “This is a special job we do every year. It’s kind of a difficult thing. It’s a challenge.”
“We’re pretty good at it, though,” added Rackley, a millwright for 12 years.
The millwrights dress in jeans and heavy boots and wear hard hats, safety goggles and earplugs in the warm, noisy surroundings.
The mill is quieter, cooler and less dusty than it will be in about two-and-a-half weeks, when the harvest season starts March 1. It will be the last harvest for the plantation, which will shut down at the end of the year, closing the book on a 145-year history of growing and producing sugar on Maui.
Parent company Alexander & Baldwin announced the closure Jan. 6, as the company’s agribusiness sector faced $30 million in losses. A&B said that the company plans to turn to diversified agriculture for its 36,000 acres.
Some mill workers have been trying to memorialize the year of “lasts.”
“Everybody has been taking a bunch of pictures of the regular off season,” Rackley said. “This is the last time. I’m trying to kind of enjoy it. I don’t know if it sounds weird. Might be the last time I’m going to lift something that’s 7 tons. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do anything like this again.”
Last week, HC&S officials announced that 95 workers — most from planting operations — will lose their jobs March 7. By the end of this year, the company’s workforce will fall from 675 to only 15.
In another part of the mill, 52-year-old Ronnie Guzman operates a machine to cut 1.25-inch-thick sheets of hot steel into parts for the mill. It’s a job he has done for the past five of the 27 years and four months he has worked at the mill.
“I learn everything I know here,” Guzman said. “I like my job.”
As the only one doing the job that requires precision, Guzman is kept busy. “I have to cut for everybody,” he said.
Thinking of the impending closure, “it’s kind of a sad feeling,” Guzman said. “My grandfather started here as one of the sakadas. My uncle, my relatives worked here.”
Guzman says he doesn’t know what he will do once the plantation closes. “It’s hard to find jobs these days, getting old,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, some of the parts fabricated by Guzman were being used by millwright Brandon Nelson to weld pumps that were shaking and vibrating.
“This is my favorite time because the range of things we have to do is huge,” said Nelson, 32. “During the season, we’re kind of troubleshooter mechanics. During the off season, we have to strip everything down and rebuild it.”
He has worked at the mill for eight years, starting in the apprenticeship program after answering a newspaper ad for the job.
“I’m going to miss it,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll find another job like it.”
Lead mechanic Julius Garcia started in the apprenticeship program 30 years ago when he was 27 years old.
“I lost my youth here,” he said. “I’ll be 59. I am not close to retirement yet.”
On Thursday, he and Samuel Lopez-Rodriguez worked to modify a truck that had been used to haul seed for planting. With no more planting being done, the truck will be used for harvesting.
The trucks are “our horses,” Garcia said.
“We know them by heart,” he said. “You ask me what truck number, I know what it is. We have been working here so long.”
Many of the trucks were manufactured in the 1980s and ’90s, Garcia said. “Pretty old and we made them run.”
“We’re grateful for having to work for this company,” he said. “I got my house because of working here, supporting my family.”
When people ask his age, “I say take the average,” Garcia said. “Probably my brains are still 16, but my knees are 72.”
Anna Skrobecki, HC&S’ senior vice president for factory and power plant operations, said that this off season is a little shorter. “But otherwise, it’s business as usual,” she said. “This work happens all year round. There’s probably less stress in the off season. Right now, when they’re not grinding, there’s a lot more time.”
Much of the work is routine and done every year or every two to three years. “People know ahead of time,” she said.
After working together to rebuild the knife for so many off seasons, Martin and Rackley know what needs to be done to try to prevent problems once the harvesting and grinding begin.
“I don’t want to come back and see this again,” Martin said. “Everything, I want it to run 24/7 the whole year. If you have ever been up here when it runs, it’s quite a beast. The whole place is shaking. You got mud, rocks, water coming through the place.
“There’s a lot of beating on it. We need to make sure that it’s tough. I think we’ve been taught pretty good, and we’ve carried on what we’ve been taught, with a little bit of tweaking here and there.”
Martin’s father worked in the mill for 15 years, leaving a year after Martin began working there.
Rackley’s father also worked in the mill, staying for 10 years before moving to Maui Pineapple Co., then starting his own welding business.
“I always look at it as a big family,” Martin said. “Like any family, you going to have people that disagree with each other. We still come together and take care of each other, make sure everybody makes it out the door the same time, with their fingers and toes.”
There have been days when Martin and Rackley have worked 18-hour shifts together.
“There’s a lot of times we’re here more than we’re home,” Rackley said. “This is family. That’s the way it works when you’re around people so much.”
Both said they and other workers are concentrating on their jobs, rather than focusing on the end of sugar harvesting and processing on Maui.
“We’re going to be grinding for the whole year,” Martin said. “The attitude is the same.”
“I’m here now so I focus on what I do here,” Rackley said. “It’s a job I do enjoy every day.”
Rackley, 33, and Martin, 41, said that the skills they’ve developed should help them find work when the mill is no longer running.
“A lot of us guys are pretty skilled,” Rackley said. “We’re all smart people. I don’t see integrating anywhere else is going to be a problem. This is the biggest equipment on this island, if not the state. Anywhere from here is going to be a little bit of a smaller scale probably.”
“A lot smaller,” Martin added. “It’s not just the basic skills. It’s the ability to adapt to some really adverse situations. That’s what’s going to carry us. We take that, and we move on.
“For myself, I’m trying to focus here because I’m planning to stay here to the end. The main focus has got to be here because it’s such a dangerous environment we work in. I got to be in the game 100 percent.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published February 14, 2016