1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Hawaiian farming returns to green roots

Larry Buhl
April 18, 2017

With the closing of the last industrial sugar plantation in Hawaii, sustainable agriculture activists see an opening to go back to Hawaii's roots and build a model for profitable organic farming.

Sugarcane harvesting on a family-scale farm in Maui – Hawaii
Image: Hawaii Farmers Union United

Only a few years ago, Hawaii produced more than a million tons of sugar a year - or 20 percent of all sugar produced in the United States. The closure of the last sugar mill on the second-largest island Maui in December 2016 marked the end of an era of big agriculture there. 

A&B was one of the handful of companies controlling sugar and associated businesses, commonly known as the "big five." Established by missionaries or descendents of missionaries in the 1800s, they have dominated Hawaii's economy, land and politics for more than 150 years.

Some have seen them as economic drivers. Others see them as usurpers of the land - there was no concept of land ownership before missionary families arrived - and a living symbol of Hawaii's colonized past. Sugar monocultures have also had a tremendous environmental impact.

With the slow fadeout of agriculture giants, a new generation of land stewards is coming up not only with a replacement for sugar, but also a new agricultural model for the next century. And the fight is on to implement it.

Long live agriculture (except sugar)

When the last sugar plantation closed, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa expressed sympathy about workers who lost their jobs - but said the change was inevitable.

The last large-scale sugar mill harvest in Maui
The closure of Maui's last sugar mill brought with it an end to big agriculture dominance, islanders hopeImage: cc by Forest and Kim Starr 2.0

"Fruit trees, taro, biomass, papayas, avocados and much more have gone through trial testing - leaving us very confident that while sugarcane is dead, agriculture will remain very much alive here," he said in a statement.

Sustainable farming advocates point out the impacts of massive sugar plantations. The practice of burning sugarcane to remove excess leaves before harvesting creates clouds of smoke that darkens skies and affects breathing of residents living downwind.

Beyond pollution from burning, and pesticides for monoculture cultivation that get absorbed into the aquifers, is the impact on the island's water. Sugarcane is a notoriously thirsty crop, and A&B has long diverted millions of gallons of water daily from streams to quench it.

"Monocropping of sugar has diverted water from streams - water that should flow from the top of the mountain to the sea," said Ashley Lukens, Director of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, a branch of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety based in Washington, D.C.

"And with concentrated land ownership, people have felt left out of their own futures."

'Roadmap to the past'

With the weakening of "big ag" in Hawaii due largely to international competition and elimination of federal sugar subsidies, small-scale organic farmers on the island are trying to regain control.

:Sugarcane fields in Maui
Sugarcane fields in Maui where environmental activists have decried monocuture farmingImage: cc by Cyndy Sims Parr 2.0

Simon Russell, President of the Haleakalā Chapter of the Hawaii Farmers Union United, says his organization wants to convince politicians to create laws favoring local, organic farmers over A&B.

Russell, who is also a small-scale farmer growing tropical fruits and vegetables - and even sugarcane - on the north shore of Maui, says the job of natural farming is to manage soil health so plants won't need chemical fertilizers.

"It's called nutrient cycling," he says. "You have to manage the vitality of soil microbes. Monoculture farming has stripped the soil of those microbes."

Russell wants to scale up his 2-acre farm to 100 acres within five years. He and other organic farmers and environmental experts are in the process of developing a "roadmap to the past," when all farms were organic. But they want to update those ancient practices to be able to turn a profit in the 21st century.

Last year, a report, by the name of Malama Aina - a Hawaiian phrase meaning care and nurturing of land can sustain life for future generations - offered direction for transitioning from large-scale monoculture sugarcane crops to diversified organic farming. The report was released by the Maui Tomorrow organization. 

A tractor in a sugarcane field
Fallow sugarcane fields are being repurposed in MauiImage: Hawaii Farmers Union United

Report author Jenny Pell, Secretary for the Haleakalā Chapter of the Hawaii farmers Union United, says moving from conventional to regenerative agriculture on a large scale is without precedent. She concedes that several things need to happen before those goals can be realized.

"First, we have to help the farmers get onto the land. And those farmers need training and skills to do this on a large scale. And they need affordable housing," Pell told DW.

Brewing fight over water and land

Still, moving back to Hawaii's pre-monoculture past - and making that profitable - would require A&B to sell its land at market value, something the company has not said it will do. A&B still owns the land where the sugarcane once grew - 36,000 acres of it.

Of that, 9,000 acres are earmarked for eventual development, although the company doesn't specify what kind. The remaining 27,000 acres are designated important agricultural land in the state constitution, meaning they must be kept undeveloped for the company to maintain its tax benefits and water rights.

Food security is also an issue, since Hawaii imports 90 percent of its food. But Hawaiians would need water if small-scale agriculture there is to thrive. Despite billions of gallons of water originating on public lands, less than one-tenth of Maui's water resources are under public control. The vast majority goes to agricultural irrigation.

"A&B has said it would like to control that water for the next 30 years, whether or not they use it," Pell said.

Albert Perez, director of the environmental nonprofit Maui Tomorrow, says he and other sustainable agriculture advocates are gearing up for a fight over the future of A&B's land.

"A lot of local farmers are serious about farming and agriculture, and they want their water back," Perez said. "A&B doesn't really care about agriculture." On its website, the company lists agriculture as just one of its businesses, alongside real estate and infrastructure construction.

A family planting pumpkins and papayas on a family farm
Small-scale farmers and environmental activists want to usher in a new era of organic farming Image: Hawaii Farmers Union United

Islanders voted in a sustainability advocate to represent them on Maui's county council in 2016. An organic farmer, Alika Atay had no prior political experience and a minimal campaign war chest.

He says his victory, on a platform of bringing permaculture and traditional farming back to Hawaii, is a sign residents are taking sustainability seriously, and are no longer willing to accept the big five's dominance over the island's economy.

"People are asking, 'how do we grow food to be used right here?'" Atay said. "We are taking baby steps toward a sustainable Maui …We all need to be at the table, or we will be on the menu."