New Uses For Former Sugar Lands on Kauai

Marginal lands planted with hardwood trees

Honduran Mahogany Trees On Kauai

In 1985 a group of agriculturalists with Amfac Sugar Co. were tasked with a study to evaluate alternate crops for company lands that were currently in sugarcane production. The results of the study were not very encouraging, what could be done with over 100,000 acres in sugar production if sugar was to experience a catastrophic event such as  loss of its agricultural subsidy.

Vegetable production was ruled out, it was estimated that 300 acres of sweet corn could supply all of Oahu’s annual needs, and 50 acres could satisfy it’s needs for Broccoli. Small numbers when on Oahu at the time Amfac had many more acres to account for.

Growing fresh fruit and vegetables for the lands owned by Amfac on Kauai and the other outer islands was not considered due to their distance from the markets in Honolulu, making them not economically viable. The picture certainly looked bleak for the land and for the current employees of the sugar plantations, and in fact it was difficult  for the agricultural laborers who had few transferable skills. Some found work with the large multi-national research seed companies in a seasonal capacity on the west side of Kauai and others found work in the hospitality industry on Kauai’s South shore. Fortunately, at the time of the closing of Amfac’s, Lihue Plantation Co., and Kekaha Sugar Co. in 2002, the local economy was healthy.

Six years earlier in 1996 the Grove Farm Land Co. the leaseholder to the lands surrounding Koloa Town and stretching east to half way bridge had a different set of challenges when McBryde Sugar, a subsidiary of Alexander and Balwin Inc., closed their operation and returned the land. Their acreage is located in high rainfall areas and was not of interest to the multinational seed companies. They required only the low rainfall areas of the former farm located in Mahaulepu where field operations would not be hindered by adverse weather. As you drive down the dusty coral road to explore Mahaulepu Beach you will see rows of corn in varying stages of growth and some with paper bags protecting the ears so that they will not freely hybridized from unknown sources.

For a handful of entrepreneurs they saw the first opportunity to lease agricultural land in 100 years. For them these flat to undulating high rainfall lands were ideal for cattle production. Abundant rainfall promotes vigorous growth in the high protein Guinea grass that rapidly took over the abandoned fields, and was once the bane of sugar growers because it competed so well with the crop. A practical measure in the cattle industry here is one animal per acre, and if you can bring animals to  6 months of age for the feed lot market on the mainland, there was money to be made. Grove Farm Land Co. made generous long term lease offers to ranchers at rates ranging from 5-20 dollars per acre per year. These inexpensive lease terms made it possible for ranch operators to develop a worthwhile primary or secondary income stream. It worked well for the Grove Farm Land Co. too, since the alternative was to have their agricultural status on the land revoked and have it taxed at a higher rate, not practical when you owned in excess of 60,000 acres.

The  Grove Farm Land Company also found interest from growers wanting land for tree production. The largest grower had a plan and a grant for using the species Albizia, for biomass production.  Albizia (Falcataria mollucana), is a native of Asia and is considered by many to be a pest in the Hawaiian islands. It can grow up to 20 feet in its first year and over 45 feet after three years. It has spread rapidly in disturbed wet areas of the Big Island and significant resources are spent annually in slowing its spread. It is the primary reason that their ‘ohi forests have all but disappeared. So why are there hundreds of acres along Kauamualii highway if it is a pest?  Was there opposition from the community when the proposal for, and the Federal monies granted? One possible explanation is that the species is already dispersed in the islands and maybe at a point where competition from other native and non native species has limited its spread.

Opponents cited that the Hawaiian islands are the most isolated land mass on the planet, and has a long history of plant and animal introduction without the proper vetting of an environmental impact study.  This is true, the Islands are replete with examples of introduced species that soon created unintended consequences that we continue to live with today. The best known is the introduction of the mongoose to eradicate rats, only later after they were dispersed on all but the island of Kauai did researchers quantify that the rat only represented 10% of a mongoose diet. The discovery that the rat is a nocturnal feeder and the mongoose hunts for food during the day added further to the folly. Tragically it was soon observed that the mongoose were climbing trees and eating the eggs of our endemic bird species, quickly eradicating many, and now only Kauai has the greatest number of rare and endangered endemic bird species in the Islands.

Proponents cited that the species was dispersed throughout the islands and had been for years.  In the project’s favor is the strong desire nationally to find alternative fuel sources to decrease our demand for petroleum products. This national mission may have served to “Green Light” projects more readily. Harvested Albizia can be processed into wood chips and are used around the world to heat homes and produce electricity. Unknown is the investment at KIUC to handle a product that will produce a higher heat than diesel oil. Are KIUC’s wet scrubbers on their smokestacks sufficient to guarantee minimal particulate matter escaping into the atmosphere? Questions that will need to be answered in the the next few years .

There has been excitement over using the biomass created to produce Bio-Char. Bio Char is essentially charcoal created by pyrolysis of  plant material where a  decomposition of organic materials occurs at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. The end result is a residue high in carbon. Bio Char can lock carbon in the soil thus releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. Bio Char may help reduce the impact of farming and other agricultural wastes. Added to the soil it can raise pH and improve soil tilth. It has the possibility of being bagged and sold as a soil amendment and with a ‘Made on Kauai” provenance it will have a built in Brand identification.

High value tropical hardwoods have commanded smaller acreage of former sugar lands but they have gained a respectable hold in the agricultural landscape.  Generally tropical hardwoods are slow growing and can be harvested in the 30-50 year span. They have become popular because they can tolerate marginal agricultural lands that  have 10-20% slope and varying amounts of rainfall. The interest in these woods came from heightened awareness in the last 15 years surrounding the degradation of rainforests globally and the loss of unique indigenous cultures that followed in tropical Africa and South America. These documented assaults on an area of the planet that affects global climate has fostered an increased sense of responsibility on the part of homeowners and suppliers to demand a product that has been sustainably grown. Species like, Jatoba (Brazilian Cherry), Ipe (Tabebuia sp.) along with some native species such as Kamani, Koa and Milo are being grown locally and their acreage is expanding. Growers understand there will always be a need for these valuable woods in the future of the Hawaiian Islands.

As you drive around the island you are witnessing new uses for this resilient and productive agricultural land. It has transitioned from taro and yam production in pre-contact days, to cotton production that supplied the Northern States during the Civil War, to pineapple and sugarcane which dominated the landscape for more than 100 years. It will continue to be put into service to feed, clothe, and generate power to a growing population that will make ever increasing demands. It is necessary, and the responsibility is ours to insure that good stewardship is a guiding tenet so that this natural resource will be productive for future generations.

About Joe Sylvester

Aloha! I have lived on Kauai for 33 years where I have worked as an Agronomist for 17 years, owned an art gallery for 11 years and own a vacation rental for 17 years in the town of Poipu. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer and have been married since 1985.
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