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Facts about Sugar Cane on Maui

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History of Sugar Cane on Maui

Sugarcane was brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians.

In 1849 George Wilfong, a sea captain, built Hawaii’s first sugar plantation in Hana, Maui.   In California, the gold rush was on and sugar was extremely overpriced.

Wilfong brought in Chinese immigrants to work his fields in 1852.

The gold rush had begun to fade near the end of the 1850s and sugar prices dropped.

Wilfong’s sugar mill burned down and he left the sugar industry.

Oscar and August Unna continued sugar production in Hana by starting the Hana Plantation in 1864.

In 1868 they brought Japanese immigrants to work their fields.

Around the same time, Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin, sons of missionaries, planted 12 acres of sugarcane in Haiku, Maui.

The next year Baldwin and Alexander founded Hawaii’s largest sugar company by adding around 5,000 acres in the central plains of Maui.

In 1876 Baldwin and Alexander created an intricate ditch system that carried from Haiku (17 miles away) to dry Wailuku.  This system contributed significantly to the future of sugarcane in Hawaii and is still used today.

Around the same time, Claus Spreckels bought land in dry Puunene.  The Hawaiians sold this land to him at a very low price as they believed it was cursed.

Spreckels won the rights to move water from Haiku to Puunene in a poker game with King Kalakaua.  He built an elaborate ditch system that carried 50 million gallons of water a day.

In 1876 King Kalakaua instituted the Sugar Reciprocity Treaty with the United States.  This gave Maui and the entire state of Hawaii a great deal on tariffs and prices, significantly boosting the sugar industry.

King Kalakaua died in 1891.  His sister, Queen Liliuokalani took his place.

In 1893 a group of missionary descendants and American sugar planters, with the help of US Marines, incarcerated the Queen in her own palace in Honolulu.  The monarchy was no more.

In 1898 Hawaii became an American territory ruled by Sanford Dole, a powerful sugar cane planter, and the Big Five, a cartel that controlled shipping, hardware, banking and every other aspect of the economy in the islands.

In 1900 more contract laborers were brought from Puerto Rico, in 1903 Korea and between 1907 and 1931 the Philippines.  Most of these stayed in the islands and started families.  Meanwhile, the native Hawaiians became a minority in their own homeland.

For almost 75 years, sugarcane reigned, subsidized largely by the U.S. Federal Government.   Sugar planters ruled the islands’ economy, changed their social structure and kept them in a colonial plantation style of living with bosses and field workers.

Sugar Cane Today

Until the mid-1980s, annual sugarcane production in Hawaii averaged one million tons.

Agriculture is still a major part of Hawaii’s economy today and sugar is the second largest crop grown in value with the largest amount of land. 

In addition to sugar, molasses and electricity are produced from sugarcane.

Sugarcane is grown on about 70,000 acres on Maui and Kauai yielding 340,000 tons of raw sugar. 

About Sugar Cane

Sugarcane begins with a 12 inch "slip" cut from a stalk of cane that is inserted by machine into the earth.

The cane receives fertilization and irrigation and is ready for harvest in 24 months.

A single cane stalk can produce three crops.  The field is then replanted with new slips.

One acre of land can produce over 90 tons of sugarcane or 12.5 tons of raw sugar.

There is controversy over the burning of sugarcane that is done for about 9 months a year.  Controlled burns of the fields are done to reduce the crop to bar canes before harvesting.  These fires produce smoke above the Maui central valley in early morning.  The ash (locally called “Maui snow”) is carried downwind, often towards northern Kihei.

Check out the Sugar Cane Train!



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