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Maui farmers resilient but need our support

By Staff | Jan 28, 2016

In an effort to expand the MauiGrown Coffee operation, hundreds of new seedlings will be transplanted later this year.

This month’s announcement on the closing of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), our state’s last and biggest sugar plantation, raises many questions as to the future of agriculture on Maui. What will become of 36,000 acres that we have seen for decades as sugar cane fields? What viable options will there be for HC&S to maintain agriculture on such large acreage? There is speculation that renewable energy and food security could shape the direction towards some sustainability of agriculture.

The truth is, we can’t see into the future. But, we do know, based on experience, that agriculture and the people that farm these lands are resilient.

When Pioneer Mill Company closed its doors in 2000, it ended a major era in West Maui’s sugar plantation history. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs. The land once green and thriving with over 6,000 acres of sugar cane were eventually overtook by weeds and fallow fields.

Fortunately, the company had invested, prior to closing the sugar plantation, in research towards diversifying agriculture, which resulted in converting hundreds of acres of sugar fields to coffee orchards. This coffee farm provided a foundation upon which a new agriculture model would be established.

Today, thanks to the efforts of Pioneer Mill’s Director of Agriculture, Kimo Falconer; landowner, Kaanapali Land Management Corp.; and many local farmers, coffee continues to thrive in West Maui. It’s a dream made possible through subdividing the coffee estate into individual farms called the “Kaanapali Coffee Farms,” investing into the infrastructure, aggressively marketing the coffee varietals under the MauiGrown Coffee brand, and especially capitalizing on the experience of many willing and able plantation farmers.

Yet the road to realizing the dream for a new ag future is not an easy one – it takes time, patience and perseverance. No one knows better than our island’s local farmers. Every day, these dedicated individuals are on the front lines. They must deal with the weather, water resources, land availability, infrastructure, fluctuating prices in the marketplace, consumer demand, competition, and overall cost of doing business. In addition, they are also subject to governmental regulations and must be sensitive to community input.

HC&S’s closing is wake up call for all of us, just as Pioneer Mill Company’s closing once did. While it gives our community an opportunity to start anew, it also reminds us how important it is to work together to support our local farmers. They are the key to ensuring a bright ag future for Maui.