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​Why Hawaii's sugar plantations have disappeared

HONOLULU - The owners of Hawaii's last sugar plantation say they're getting out of the sugar-growing business. Miles of sugar cane fields once spread across the islands, providing work to thousands of immigrants and shaping Hawaii life. Soon, they'll be gone.

Here's an explanation of why sugar grew to dominate Hawaii and why it faded.

How did sugar get to be a big business in Hawaii?

Sugar was farmed on a relatively small scale in the islands until the U.S. Civil War. But the conflict cut off the North from sugar grown in Louisiana, leading to a surge in imports from Hawaii. In the 1870s, the U.S. and what was then the Hawaiian Kingdom signed a treaty that eliminated U.S. tariffs on sugar and rice and Hawaiian tariffs on cotton and other products. Plantation profits almost doubled. Sugar cane growing expanded further after the U.S. annexed Hawaii and property rights for plantation owners became more secure, said Sumner La Croix, a University of Hawaii economics professor. Acres planted with sugar cane exploded from 15,000 in 1876 to 238,000 in 1941.

How has sugar shaped Hawaii?

Entrepreneurs from the U.S., Britain and beyond -- including several descendants of Protestant missionaries to Hawaii -- got into the business. They brought in laborers from China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico and elsewhere for the crushing work of plowing, planting and cutting cane. A distinct language, Hawaiian pidgin or Hawaiian Creole English, emerged as immigrants and Native Hawaiians looked for ways to communicate. Sugar growers began diverting vast quantities of water from wetter parts of the islands to drier areas with arable land. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, which ran the plantation that plans to harvest its last cane this year, has been diverting water from 19 streams in east Maui and several others in central Maui to irrigate its 36,000 acres. Some of the old plantation irrigation infrastructure today supports housing subdivisions and golf courses on arid land.

Why has it disappeared?

Plantations started to close in the 1950s. The pace accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. U.S. tariff and quota protections for sugar began declining in the decades after World War II amid broader trade liberalization. Plantation workers first began to organize effective unions in the 1930s, which helped build Hawaii's middle class but also made the industry less competitive compared with other countries. Then Hawaii's land values began to spike as the introduction of passenger jets reduced travel times to Hawaii and launched a tourism boom. Many landowners found they could make more money building hotels and homes than growing cane. The last Maui plantation's parent company lost $30 million on its agriculture business last year. La Croix said the end of the sugar industry is a watershed moment for Hawaii but not a surprise.

Where else is sugar grown in the U.S.?

Sugar cane accounted for 43 percent of the sugar grown in the U.S. last year, with the rest coming from beets, according to data from the American Sugar Alliance. Florida is the biggest producer of U.S. cane sugar, with more than 2 million tons last year, followed by Louisiana with 1.5 million tons. Hawaii produced 165,000 tons worth about $83 million last year.

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