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Ever Heard of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company?

The Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, better known as HC&S, is the last surviving sugar plantation in Hawaii.   Located on the island of Maui, it was the first business venture of Alexander & Baldwin, in 1869.  That’s when boyhood friends, Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin, purchased 12 acres and after adding another 559 acres, planted their first crop in 1870.

Alexander came up with plans to build an irrigation system that would divert much needed water from streams on the slopes of Haleakala to water their 3,000 acres of cane and other nearby plantations over 17 rugged miles of rain forest, ridges and ravines. Thus was born the Hamakua Ditch and the Hamakua Ditch Company, now known as the East Maui Irrigation Company, became the oldest subsidiary of A&B.

With the 1948 merger of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. and Maui Agriculture Co., HC&S became a division of Alexander & Baldwin.  Today, HC&S is the sole survivor of dozens and dozens of sugar plantations that once provided tens of thousands of jobs and one of the backbone industries of Hawaii.  How long will HC&S continue in the sugar industry?

Well, they have initiated studies this summer in conjunction with the University of Hawaii to look into alternative crops that might be more efficient.  HC&S is dedicated to the production of energy and in particular,  bio-energy crops production.  Bagasse, the fibrous remains of the stalk once the sugar has been squeezed out,  happens to be a very high bio-mass product.

HC&S has been burning bagasse for decades to generate  electricity.   HC&S burns 500,000 tons of bagasse a year, which produces energy equivalent to 500,000 barrels of oil.  This not only provides for all of their energy needs, but also provides 7-8% of all the power used on Maui, which is distributed by Maui Electric.

With all the emphasis on ethanol as a fuel alternative to oil, many have questioned whether the land would be better used to grow corn.  Ethanol derived from sugarcane has a much greater positive energy balance compared to corn-derived ethanol because of higher biomass yields.

In simple terms fermentation, the basic process for ethanol production, uses sugar as its feedstock.  Complex carbohydrates such as starches in corn must be broken down to basic sugar units to achieve fermentation. Sugarcane in its natural form already contains high levels of sugar making it a most efficient feedstock for ethanol.

HC&S continues to look at ways to have the most efficient operations possible.  Hopefully, that will involve the continued growing as sugarcane as a commercial crop.  It would be a shame to lose this last connection to such a historical industry.  The sugar and pineapple industries are the primary reasons why Hawaii has the diverse population that it does.

Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Scottish, Scandinavian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Puerto Rican, Afro-American, Korean and Filipino immigrants to Hawaii supplemented the Hawaiian workforce.   Hawaii has only two remaining pineapple producers and the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company is the last reminder of the once dominant sugar industry.


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