Passengers in window seats on planes arriving at Kahului Airport are the ones fortunate enough to have a spectacular bird's eye view of Maui's most historically significant plant: sugar cane. Some 36,000 acres of this giant grass paint broad swatches of green across Maui's lower volcanic slopes and sunny central isthmus, giving the island its lush, verdant look.
Once the most influential crop in the daily lives of Maui's residents, sugar cane continues to be an economic contributor for the State of Hawaii, both as a leading agricultural crop and, in the form of bagasse, fuel for steam-driven electrical generators.
Sugar cane is believed to have originated more than 10,000 years ago in New Guinea. From there, early human migrations spread the plant westward into Southeast Asia and India and eastward into Polynesia. In the west, the Arabs began cultivating cane and making sugar, and introduced their techniques to Europe. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the West Indies, and by 1751, the plant was grown successfully in Louisiana.
In the Pacific, Polynesian settlers introduced sugar cane to Hawaii more than a thousand years ago. Hawaiians planted cane around their taro patches and chewed the sweet stalk, but did not make sugar. The Hawaiian sugar industry dates itself to 1835 when the first successful sugar plantation was established on the island of Kauai. Sugar plantations would eventually pop up throughout the islands, including, over the years, more than 30 of various sizes on Maui. Over time, consolidations and closures gradually reduced the number to fewer, but larger, plantations. Today, only one sugar producing mill remains- Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company- on the island of Maui.
During sugar's heyday in Hawaii, the plantations privately developed an extensive irrigation system that today still provides a significant portion of the island of Maui's water supply. The industry also built company housing, stores, hospitals and churches, which evolved into culturally rich, self-contained communities that included most of the island's population.
As the industry's need for manpower grew, immigrants from around the world were recruited to work on the plantations, hailing from places as far-flung as China, Japan, Puerto Rico, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Germany and Scandinavia. These immigrants became the foundation of the islands' multi-ethnic society, the "melting pot of the Pacific."
Sugar's heyday in Hawaii lasted until the 1960's, when tourism outpaced it as the state's number one industry. It remained Hawaii's leading agricultural crop until, with the closure of several plantations in the 1990's, the crop value of sugar fell below that of pineapples, marking the end of a major era.
Today, the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company operates the state's last working sugar mill, in Puunene, Maui, across the way from the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum. It produces between 150,000 to 200,000 tons of raw sugar per year on approximately 36,000 acres of cane and employs some 800 people. The mill also produces around 60,000 tons of molasses and generates approximately six percent of Maui's electrical power, using mostly renewable sources of energy such as hydro power and cane fiber.
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