Don’t count sugar industry out yet

LIHUE — Rumors of the imminent demise of the island’s remaining sugar plantation, Gay & Robinson, are greatly exaggerated, said company president E. Alan Kennett.

Yes, it’s true, the industry has contracted, from 18 factories when Kennett arrived in Hawaii in 1976 to two today.

But G&R leaders have ongoing expansion plans that include additional acreage formally farmed by Kekaha Sugar Company workers in and around Kekaha, and other ideas that will require additional manpower to accomplish, Kennett said.

“G&R is still expanding,” said Kennett, telling a group of around 25 people at an economic forum at the Lihue Civic Center that G&R will soon have 7,500 acres under cultivation, including 3,500 acres planted on Robinson family lands each year, and 4,000 acres of former Kekaha Sugar land leased from the state.

Company workers planted 1,500 acres of sugar in Kekaha last year, and will plant 2,000 more acres this year, with anticipated crops of 57,000 tons of sugar this year, 66,000 tons next year, 73,000 tons in 2005, and 76,000 tons in 2006, he said.

Authorized to have up to 300 unionized sugar workers, G&R now has 277 bargaining-unit employees and 47 salaried workers, and is looking for more, he continued.

Currently, though, company human-resources personnel are having trouble finding skilled workers such as truck drivers with commercial drivers licenses, and heavy-truck mechanics. Kauai Community College used to be the source of trained workers, but since only one plantation remains, KCC officials can’t justify running programs where instructors may train only one or two workers, he said.

Kennett said the plantations used to be sources of specifically trained vocational workers for other industries, but with only one plantation left on Kauai (and just two in Hawaii), that source has also all but dried up.

G&R still has a good training program, but still experiences the flight of trained workers to higher-paying jobs with Kauai Island Utility Cooperative and other entities, or to less labor-intensive jobs in hotels, Kennett noted.

Diversification is the key to sugar’s survival on Kauai, with the Robinson family that owns 51,000 acres of land on Kauai and all 46,000 acres of Niihau moving forward on a variety of fronts with plans designed to ensure that survival.

The events on and after Sept. 11, 2001 have delayed groundbreaking for a 250-cottage resort on family land near the famed Pakala surf break. A new feature added to G&R’s Kaumakani mill will allow company workers to produce white sugar for sale, which Kennett calls a “value-added sugar.”

And Kennett still wants the mill area to be the site for a garbage-to-energy plant capable of burning most of the island’s solid waste. Negotiations are also ongoing to film a movie in the Pakala area, he reported.

“We need those extra businesses to support sugar,” he said.

Challenges remain, including a low world price for sugar, he said. Company-subsidized housing in Kaumakani is a huge strain on company resources. Of the company’s 438 housing units, half are occupied by pensioners who pay no rent. The highest rent an employee pays in company housing is $125 a month.

New federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements coming soon will cost the company millions of dollars, as so-called “gang cellpools” or septic tanks serving several households are being banned. That will mean the company will have to construct individual wastewater treatment facilities, or a full-on sewage treatment plant, to serve its company housing.

“Cruise ships are a big problem for G&R,” he said. When the passenger ships are docked in Nawiliwili Harbor, G&R workers can do no repairs on sugar-ship equipment at Pier 2, nor have the sugar ship at that pier. The cruise ships have priority over the sugar ship, which carries raw sugar from Kauai to the California refinery after being trucked to Nawiliwili from Kaumakani.

Business Editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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