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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, August 11, 2001

40 workers laid off in shutdown

By Susan Hooper
Advertiser Staff Writer

Dole Food Co. Hawaii shut down most of its diversified agriculture operations Thursday on O'ahu, putting about 40 employees out of work.

Dole's experiment in diversified agriculture was anchored by export papayas, which the company bought from local growers and then packed for sale on the Mainland.

"We haven't been making money at this for some time and we've tried different ways of cutting costs, but the prices have been falling faster," said Jerry Vriesenga, president of Dole Food Co. Hawaii. "And we finally decided it would be better for us to discontinue the nonprofitable operations and intensify our efforts on our pineapple."

The company set up its Dole Tropicals diversified-agriculture operation in 1996 on about 800 acres from the Waialua Sugar Co., which Dole had closed that year. At that time Dole received a wholesale price of $12 to $13 for a 10-pound box of papayas, Vriesenga said. Now it gets half that amount — about $6 to $7 a box, he said.

He attributed the drop in prices to competition from Brazil and Mexico and to the success of Hawai'i's own Rainbow variety papaya, which has been produced in larger volumes recently.

Dole has also discontinued production of about 200 acres of coffee, 100 acres of tropical flowers — mostly bird of paradise and heliconia — and about 500 acres of orchards growing mango, rambutan, avocado, lychee and various citrus fruits, Vriesenga said. The company is considering leasing the already cultivated land to local farmers.

About 10 Dole employees will continue to provide irrigation and facilities management support to taro, papaya and other vegetable farmers who already lease land in the area from Dole, he said.

The laid-off employees represent about 10 percent of Dole's Hawai'i work force of about 400 people, Vriesenga said.

Most of the 40 are hourly wage and seasonal workers under International Longshore and Warehouse Union contracts, while a few are in supervisory positions. Most laid-off employees were in the papaya packing operations, he said.

Of its 28,000 acres of land on O'ahu, Dole has about 4,500 acres dedicated to pineapple. The company expects to convert all of its pineapple to low-acid varieties, which have a sweeter taste, Vriesenga said.

Reach Susan Hooper at shooper@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8064.