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a view of a body of water with a mountain in the background

If you’ve ever been to Maui you know that one of the reasons Maui is No Ka Oi (the best) is that compared to the other islands Maui has a diverse landscape and a combination of open spaces, the jungle waterfalls of Hana and the high mountain slopes of Haleakala are unique to all of Hawaii. Now it looks like that landscape is up for some big changes.

a large green field with trees in the background

HC&S (Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar) was Hawaii’s last and largest sugarcane producer to end its sugar operations on Maui after 134 years. 2016 was the last harvest and the plantations 36,000 acres will be re-purposed. The company says it’s dedicated to keeping all this land in central Maui in agriculture by leasing it to farmers with priority going to the employees, over 650 of which will be out of a job at the end of 2016. A&B has not released specifics about the land’s use as of yet, but company officials have mentioned they plan to develop an agricultural park on 1000 to 2000 acres growing energy and food crops and offering irrigated pasture lands to support the islands cattle industry. Alexander & Baldwin (A&B) has been and still is one of the principal landowners on Maui since the 1870s.

a bench in a park

All the other islands have ceased sugar production in the last two decades. Kauai, where commercial sugar cultivation started in 1835, closed its last sugar plantation in 2009 leaving only Maui’s HC&S as the last of a once mighty sugar economy. The 36,000 acres future is under consideration. Will it become a model for sustainable land use? Can it evolve into something that preserves the rural, agricultural feel of Maui? Could this become a pivotal moment in reviving the Hawaiian culture’s agricultural ways?

Sugar And The Ancient Hawaiians

Ua lehulehu a manomano ka ‘ikena a ka Hawai‘i.
Great and numerous is the knowledge of the Hawaiians.

a group of palm trees next to a tree

Pre-Contact Maui

Sugar cane, known as Ko, grew wild in Maui in ancient times and still does today. Sugar cuttings were brought to the islands by Polynesian immigrants thought to have first discovered the islands around 450A.D. It’s estimated that by the 16th century the plant had become widespread throughout the islands. It was planted in clumps, in rows, or as borders to stream irrigated taro fields (Loi). Captain Cook, who was the first known European to anchor off the coast of Kahului in 1778, traded sugarcane for iron with the native Hawaiians who brought it out to his ships in canoes. This original Hawaiian sugar cane can still be seen growing along the road to Hana today.

a group of people on a beach

There are believed to have been two major Polynesian migrations to Hawaii. The first wave of settlers was comprised of islanders from the Marquesas Islands group near Tahiti. The descendants of these peoples may be where the legend of the Menehune comes from. The second wave began to arrive from the islands of Tahiti, Samoa and the Society Islands around mid A.D. 1100 and ended in the mid A.D. 1300. Archeologist and scholars believe that these Polynesian immigrants brought with them the basis for a caste warrior society and religion which evolved into a Hawaiian culture unique to the ancient Polynesians. War was a large part of ancient times, but peace did reign for many years on Maui due to a Hana chief named Pi’ilani who gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to Umi, Ali’i Mo’i (king) of the Big Island of Hawaii around the mid-1400s. Because of this union, there were no battles fought with the island of Hawaii for an estimated 50 years. During this time Pi’ilani developed many public works projects including the building of the King’s Trail circling the island. It is still in use today and is the original route of the road to Hana.

The Hawaiians were remarkable in their ability to sustain their limited resources and provide for all. By managing the land from the mountains to the sea, the four major islands sustained tens of thousands of people employing the ancient Ahupua’a land management system.

a small boat in a body of water

Ancient Hawaiian Land Management

Ahupua’a Land Division System

In ancient Hawaii the concept of individual land ownership was unknown to ancient Hawaiians. The Hawaiian society was a caste system based on royal bloodlines. The ruling class (Ali’i) managed all the resources of a district within pie-shaped areas of land that ran from the mountains to the sea. Large areas of the island were divided along natural boundaries such as gulches and streams. These large districts were known as mokus. Within each moku, the land was divided into an Ahupua’a. Often a dozen or more Ahupua’a were contained with a Moku.

These ahupua’a were defined by resources such as streams and valleys running from the mountains to the ocean. Most Hawaiians in ancient times lived from sea level to around 1000’ elevation. Villages were situated near the ocean with fish ponds (lava rock walls extending out into the ocean from shore) which let smaller fish into the pond through an ingeniously designed gate. As the fish grew, they became too large to fit back out through the gate leaving them trapped. They were then caught in nets as needed.

Farther up the valley or stream from the village terraced patches were built and water diverted from nearby streams to irrigate these patches in which grew taro and sweet potato. The irrigation system emptied back into the stream which flowed to the sea carrying nutrients that fed the fish in the ponds. It was an ingenious system that sustained the Hawaiian population for centuries.


Progression Of The Hawaiian Economy

a close up of a lush green field

The Sandalwood Trade

Hawaii’s economy has changed several times since European discovery in 1778. First, it was the Sandalwood trade. By 1790 Kamehameha was waging war to unify the islands into one kingdom. Kamehameha negotiated a trade with the foreigners to acquire armaments and western style ships. Sandalwood, known by the Hawaiians as ‘Iliahi, was sought after by the Chinese who used the fragrant wood for incense, medicinal purposes and for building details and carvings. Starting around 1810 this trade decimated the island’s environment and the Hawaiian’s way of life.

a statue of Zheng He

Native commoners were ordered by Kamehameha to harvest the trees for taxes. Trees were cut, and the logs carried down the mountains on the worker’s backs. Sold by weight the average bundle of wood carried by each man was 133 lbs. Though the King put a Kapu (forbidden) order on cutting seedlings or young trees, after his death in 1819, an all-out assault began on the forests. The sandalwood forests of Maui once covered the slopes of Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains from sea level to the summits in a three-layer rainforest canopy. By 1840 the forests were gone, and the Sandalwood trade collapsed. The forests that once captured clouds and rain could no longer support the Ahupua’a system as it had in the past.

a small boat in a body of water

The Whaling Trade

The Sandalwood trade was replaced by the whaling industry. Whaling began its “Golden Age” in the Pacific after the war of 1812. By 1819 Hawaii saw the first of the Yankee whaling fleet (2 ships) arrive at provision for the winter. By 1846 over 400 ships came to call at Lahaina per year. Though ships also provisioned on Oahu, Maui’s Lahaina Roadstead was preferred by captains and crew for its beautiful weather, friendly natives and the grog shops and lusty women of Lahaina town.

a vintage photo of a boat

These hard partying sailors did not sit well with the newly arrived missionaries from the east coast of America and conflicts began to build by the mid-1830s. There were several riots when a kapu (forbidden) was placed on women boarding the ships. One ship captain was detained at the Lahaina jail, and the crew fired a cannon from their ship into Lahaina. He was released without further incident but soon after a fort was built with gun emplacements and a guard who blew a conch shell every night signaling for sailors to return to their ships. The ruins of this fort can be seen today at the Lahaina Banyan tree park near the harbor.

a large green field with a mountain in the background

The Maui Sugar Economy

The whaling industry was replaced by the sugar industry. As whaling declined in the early part of the nineteenth-century efforts were made to find an industry that could replace the instability of the whaling economy. Agriculture seemed to be a good use of the resources, and several crops and industries were tried. Among them were silkworms, rice, rubber trees, potatoes, and sugar cane. Sweet potatoes had been grown by ancient Hawaiians and were a hot commodity among the whaling crews.

By the end of 1848, the California Gold Rush brought demand for Hawaii produce of which potatoes became Maui’s first exported crop. Many white men, as well as native Hawaiians, also joined the rush to California. Some 700 Chinese lived and grew potatoes in Kula on the western slopes of Haleakala for shipment to San Francisco.

a view of a lush green field

In the same year a proclamation by the Hawaiian kingdom, known as the Great Mahele, made it possible for foreigners to own Hawaiian lands in fee simple. As the American Civil War erupted southern sugar and production was halted due to blockades which consequently launched the Hawaiian sugar industry. The landowners were primarily Americans, and by 1894 these sugar planters overthrew the Hawaiian Monarchy ruled by Queen Liliuokalani and established a new provincial government. The coup involved 300 U.S. Marines called to Hawaii to allegedly protect American lives. This overthrow is still a contentious issue with native Hawaiians today.

Maui’s Sugar Dynasty

Sugar cane crops seemed to do well in Maui besides the fact that a lot of water was needed for irrigation and processing. It takes 500,000 gallons of water to process one ton of sugar. The need for water resulted in a system of ditches being built from Maui’s wet Hana side to central Maui.

a large farm field

By 1850 the Hawaiian government had passed laws permitting non-Hawaiians to buy land in fee simple. Known as the Great Mahele passed in 1848, these laws allowed land for sugar production and plantations. Investors went heavily into debt buying up land. By 1860 many had lost their investments and the remaining owners bought up other plantations. Hawaii’s sugar industry went through boom and bust cycles for some years, but the deciding factor came during the Civil War in the United States

The American civil war increased Hawaii’s sugar production due to the blockade of exports from the South during the war. Prices increased by 525% in 1864. This motivated many investors to take a chance in Maui. By 1860 there were 12 plantations or mills spread out among the four main islands. By 1866 there were 32.

a vintage photo of an old building

Pioneer Mill Lahaina

a vintage photo of a dry grass field

Founded in 1860 Pioneer Mill had 600 acres in cultivation and eventually acquired other nearby plantations such a Olowalu Sugar Company. The land was rocky but highly suitable for sugarcane. In 1876 Pioneer Mill won an award at the Philadelphia World’s Fair for its fine quality sugar. The first well on Maui was drilled for Pioneer mill in 1883. By 1910 the plantation had over 8000 acres in cultivation. This land was so productive that some fields could produce sugar cane without plowing or replanting for as long as 10 years!

The mill was closed in 1999, but for or 139 years this mill was the mainstay of West Maui’s economy, and its smokestack stands tall today as a major landmark to this past era. At its peak in 1935, the plantation cultivated 10,000 acres and processed 60,000 tons of sugar. Flumes transported the stalks from the field to a railway which ran to the mill. The well known Sugar Cane Train in Lahaina is all that is left of the estimated 200 miles of railroads connecting cane fields and mills throughout the island.

a vintage photo of a person

Claus Spreckels

The Millionaire Sugar Baron

The founder of HC&S is Claus Spreckels, a millionaire sugar baron from San Francisco who arrived in Hawaii in 1876. Using money earned as owner of the most successful sugar refinery in California, Spreckels began to build a sugar mill and acquire land in and around central Maui. In 1875, the year before his arrival in Hawaii, the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States went into effect which eliminated taxes and tariffs on sugar exports. This attracted many investors like Spreckels.

a man wearing a suit and tie

He became friends with S.T. Alexander and H.P. Baldwin where he learned much about growing sugar in Maui. He also became friends with Hawaii’s last king, King Kalakaua, and negotiated leases and rights to land and water for sugar production. He built a state of the art sugar mill in Spreckelsville near Pa’ia. It was the first sugar mill powered by electricity in Hawaii and caused quite a sensation. The mill was visited by Hawaiian Kings, Queens, and Princesses who came to see this new marvel of technology – electric lights. He also knew the importance of water in sugar production and 1878 began building a 30-mile long ditch from Hana to central Maui for his plantation and mill at Spreckelsville. This ditch can be seen today all along the road to Hana.

Maui’s Sugar Immigrants

a tree in front of a house

Immigrants made Hawaii what it is today. From the amazing food to the uniquely fun language known as Pidgin english, the immigrant sugar cane workers brought cultures from around the world to Maui which still shapes life in the islands today.

As the sugar industry’s need for workforce grew while the Hawaiian population was dwindling. Diseases which the Hawaiians had no immunity to decimated the population. The Hawaiians were again prized for their hard work and ingenuity, but there were simply not enough native Hawaiians to keep the sugar industry going.

Plantations had to import workers to continue expanding. These immigrants became the foundation of the island’s multi-ethnic society, the “melting pot of the Pacific.”

Immigration to Hawaii started with the Chinese. The first attempt at sugar production in Hawaii is said to have come from the Tong See (Sugar Masters) who planted sugar in Wailuku and the island of Lanai. Captain Vancouver, an officer aboard Captain Cook’s ships in 1778, returned to Hawaii with his ships in 1794. He landed on Maui’s south shore where he observed Chinese on the island. By 1840 Chinese workers began hauling sugar cane with mules. The first contracted Chinese field laborers began to arrive in 1852 but most moved to the larger towns and cities such as Honolulu as merchants soon after their field contracts were completed.

Next to arrive in Maui were the Japanese. Just under 150 arrived in 1868 as the sugar boom, caused by the American Civil War, was ramping up. Over the next 30 plus years, as many as 61,000 Japanese had made their way to Maui. At first, each ethnic group lived in their camps built by the sugar plantations. The language barrier kept them pretty much separate until Pidgin English was developed. The plate lunch so popular today is an evolution of the Japanese “Bento” meal.

The Portuguese began arriving on Maui in 1878, the year the Hamakua Ditch was completed, and by 1887 over 17,000 called Maui home. They worked mostly in the manager positions of field and mill jobs as they spoke English well. Maui has had several Mayors of Portuguese descent who played a significant role in shaping modern Maui into what it is today.

Filipinos were the last big wave of immigration for the sugarcane industry to arrive in Hawaii. Starting in 1907 over 120,000 had come by 1931. They are hardworking families who made the transition from fieldwork to the tourism and hotel industries of today.

In addition to these ethnic groups, Maui also saw immigrant arrivals from Tonga, Samoa, Puerto Rico, Russia, and Germany!

a train driving down the road


The sugar industry was replaced with tourism. World War ll introduced over a million Americans to the beauty of the islands and their allure built up as the post war prosperity had visitors arriving on beautiful luxury liners of the day. Statehood came in 1959 and during the 1960’s tourism paved the way for what is today Hawaii’s number one industry. Sugar remained the leading crop until plantations began closing in the 1990’s as the price of sugar began to drop. It had been heavily subsidized by the government but values continued to drop as production costs increased. HC&S experienced a $30 million loss on its plantation in 2015 prompting it closure in 2016. Visitor arrivals created a new record in 2015 with 8.6 million visitors. Visitor spending increased 2.3 percent to $15.3 billion in 2015.

Eco Tourism

As the tourism industry continues to grow, more and more travelers are looking for activities where they can learn and enrich themselves. Spa retreats, farm stays, zipline tours, van tours, paddle sport tours and B&Bs are growing as eco tourism evolves in Maui.

a passenger bus that is parked on the side of a road

Maui’s road to Hana and the people who live along this road have been living a sustainable lifestyle for centuries. Eco tours to this side of the island can not only improve the experience of traveling this amazing road but are one of the leading proponents of teaching and learning about the Hawaiian culture.

Commerce such as farm to table and farmers markets are also expanding throughout Maui and hopefully, this trend will get a boost from the closure of sugar production as the land is utilized for food and renewable energy crops such as the newly planted sunflowers to be processed into biofuels.

Sugar Today

The Puunene Sugar Mill was built in 1901 and at the time was the largest sugar mill in the state. Puunene was the world’s first fully computerized sugar mill with the capacity to process 7500 tons of sugarcane per day which resulted in 1000 tons of raw sugar!

a bench in front of a tree

Across the street from the sugar mill is the Sugar Museum, an independent non-profit. At one time, the mill also produced approximately 6% of Maui’s electrical power using mostly renewable sources such as hydro power from the ditch system and bagasse (cane fiber), a post processing waste which was burned as fuel for generators.


East Maui Watershed

The diversion of water from east Maui streams has been a contentious issue with the farmers in Hana for many years. Stream flows have been reduced by the diversion from both ditches in the East Maui watershed and diversions of the Four Waters area of Wailuku, all built in the late 1800s.

Today organizations such as —- have been working through the courts to restore not only the stream flows but to restore the native forests. Reforestation projects like East Maui Watershed Partnership (EMWP), Plant a Wish, the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project and Ulupalakua Ranch are making a huge difference within the ecosystem of these ancient forests of Maui.

a colorful bird perched on a flower

The watershed has generally well-defined vegetation communities based on elevation. Below the upper elevation grass and shrublands at approximately 7,200 feet, diverse forest communities are dominated by the native Ohi`a extend to the windward coastline. Other forest types include the native Koa, as well as non-native forest plantations of Eucalyptus, common guava, paperbark, rose apple and java plum.

Some of the most intact and extensive native forests in Hawaii occur here, and support the state’s greatest concentration of endangered forest birds.

The rainforests of the East Maui Watershed provide an estimated 60 million gallons of surface water for Central and East Maui’s agricultural, residential and commercial needs. These forests are one of the last remaining strongholds for the native plants and animals that were here when the first Hawaiians arrived over 1500 years ago. These forest slopes are also home to a greater concentration of rare and endangered birds than any other place on earth!

smoke coming out of the water

Burning Cane Fields

Part of the sugarcane harvest process was the burning of cane fields. This process of burning, which pulls the sugar content from the roots into the stalks and eliminates the unusable leafy matter, has caused some contention among residents for many years. Aside from the $30 million loss in 2015 company officials have mentioned that the opposition to cane burning from local organizations and social media sites were part of the deciding factors in halting sugar growing operations this year.

a train on a track with smoke coming out of it

Many people on the island have suffered over the years from the effects of cane smoke. Since sugar plantations had been in the islands for well over 100 years, the residents had relied on this agricultural economy for generations. The basic contention has been that cane smoke, and sugar production are part of island life and if you don’t like it go back to from where you came. Although it’s sad that hundreds of families will lose their livelihoods, it could also be looked at as a new beginning for agriculture on Maui. The island is in a great position to revitalize a locavore movement (food grown locally) including cattle grazing land expansion and food crops.

a man riding a bike down a dirt road

Soil Quality

Another issue is the soil quality. Many decades of herbicide and chemical fertilizer use has depleted the organic material in the soil and it may take some time to condition it to the point of safely growing organic food crops. Organic food sales have increased over 200% in the last decade and the trend is continuing. A&B Diversified Ag’s plans include a 2000 acre agricultural park for food crops and orchards. Maui’s aina (land) has always been highly productive and should be able to grow some of the best produce in Hawaii.

a herd of cattle standing on top of a mountain

It’s possible to rebuild this soil with organic matter and fertilizers, but it may take some time to recondition all 36,000 acres. Let’s hope that the island businesses can come together to make this land safe and usable for food crops. One way would be for all the island restaurants to begin composing all their scrapes for soil conditioning.

Another challenge that may come from the end of sugar production could come from rodent and insect infestations from the sugar cane that was partially kept in check with the burning of the fields. It remains to be seen how this problem will be dealt with in the coming years.

Anyone who has ever lived on Maui will tell you of the centipedes. They often nest near or in sugarcane fields and old “Cane Houses” built for the sugar industry workers. These large insects are pretty much the only poisonous land animals in Hawaii and hitchhiked into the ecosystem along with a few other nasty bugs decades ago. All resort areas take these bugs seriously by cleaning and spraying appropriately.

If you’re out exploring on your own, though, beware…bites are rare, but they can put you down for a few days. A bite will burn like a hot poker for a few hours, swell up considerably and eventually heal in 3 to 4 days depending on where you’ve been bitten. Either way, it will put a damper on your vacation so keep an eye out while traipsing around (especially on the Hana side) and check your bedding too…most people get nailed while sleeping…knock on wood!

Let’s hope that all these factors will come together to produce an outstanding sustainable model of agriculture that will bring better food security and health to the population of our beautiful island!

a view of a mountain

So there you have it. Maui’s open central plains will begin to see a transformation in the coming years as the transition from sugar begins. Let’s hope A&B Inc. continues the agricultural traditions that have kept Maui No Ka Oi!

Aloha Nui Loa

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