A GROWING NICHE
New growth for pineapple farming
By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Andrew Gomes
Pineapple farming in Hawai'i declined sharply in the past few years at the hands of two agribusiness industry giants, but increasing numbers of small farmers see sweet opportunity in the crop long associated with the Isles.
"Call us crazy, but let's hope we're crazy like a fox — not crazy crazy," said Craig Bowden, a farm industry veteran who partnered to start two local pineapple farm ventures three years ago and has rapidly expanded.
Bowden was one of 42 pineapple growers in the state in 2007, up from 34 in 2002 and 27 in 1997, according to the three most recent farm census reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The rise in pineapple farming involves mostly small farms, so the crop isn't about to reclaim its crown as king of Hawai'i agriculture — a title lost in 2006 to seed crops.
But the niche growth for pineapple is helping maintain agriculture's roots in Hawai'i and counters a perception for some that pineapple farming is dying out in the state.
"It's part of Hawai'i," said Mark Hudson, statistician for the state Department of Agriculture.
Plantation-scale pineapple farming in Hawai'i has suffered over several decades from competition largely from Central America and Asia where land and labor costs are cheaper. Hawai'i's pineapple production by acreage actually peaked in 1955, though the value of annual pineapple sales topped out in 1991 at $108 million.
The most recent pullbacks involved Del Monte Fresh Produce leaving the local market in 2006, and a cutback last year by Maui Land & Pineapple Co. from roughly 2,000 acres to 1,000 acres. Dole Food Co. reduced its local pineapple business in 2006 from 3,100 acres to 2,700, and remains the biggest grower in the state.
Matthew Loke, agriculture development division administrator with the state Department of Agriculture, said Hawai'i farms still supply 100 percent of pineapple for local consumption, but the changes by big producers have created opportunity for more small farmers, especially organic producers and growers of special varieties.
New growth in local pineapple farming has mostly involved very small farms, according to census figures. On the Big Island, 19 pineapple farms averaged one acre in size. On Kaua'i, 16 acres of pineapple were spread over 13 farms.
Those in the industry suspect that some of the small farms counted in the census don't produce fresh fruit for commercial sale, or may only sell at farmers markets.
Bowden is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, among the new crop of Hawai'i pineapple farmers. A graduate of Kalani High School and former manager with Del Monte who worked in the Philippines, Hawai'i and Florida, Bowden partnered with fellow Kalani alumnus and crop research specialist Tom Menezes to start Hawai'i Pineapple Co. LLC in 2006 and produce fruit under a brand named Hawaiian Crown.
The company started with a few acres of its own pineapple variety sold in Times Super Market, and has since dramatically expanded by tens of acres and added more retail outlets including Foodland Super Market, KTA Super Stores and military commissaries.
GROWTH ON BIG ISLAND
Hawai'i Pineapple Co. operates a farm on the Big Island, but most of its production comes from a partnership with large diversified crop grower Aloun Farm in Kunia on O'ahu.
Bowden said 99 percent of Hawaiian Crown pineapple is sold locally in stores typically for $1.59 to $1.79 a pound, with a few exports to places such as California, Las Vegas and even Dubai.
Bowden said plans are in the works to partner with two more existing farms on O'ahu and the Big Island that would double the size of the business.
On a smaller scale, Sweet Spirit Farms on the Big Island incorporated pineapple farming with a Kona coffee farm started in 2004 by Deb and Paul Sims after they moved to Hawai'i from the Mainland in 2003.
Deb Sims said they started planting crowns from white pineapple they bought to eat, and two years ago had accumulated enough plants to begin selling regularly at the local farmers market where the fruit typically sells for $3 a pound.
"They're easy to grow," she said. "They don't need a lot of care."
Sweet Spirit, which has about 3,600 coffee trees, has about 250 pineapple plants on one-fourth an acre, and Sims said she and her husband intend to plant more. "The supply I don't think meets the demand," she said.
Other small pineapple farmers include Phil Green, who grows organic pineapples on Kaua'i at Kaua'i Organic Farms, and James Bunten and Sharon Umbaugh of Bunten Farms who grow white pineapples on the Big Island.
The growth among small pineapple farmers, however, doesn't mean the business is easy or a sure thing. Small farmers have left the business in recent years, a reminder that farming is inherently tough with its exposure to inclement weather, pests and other factors that are hard to control.
On Lana'i — once the world's largest pineapple plantation operated by Dole Food — only one commercial farmer is believed to be growing pineapple, but the plants aren't for commercial production.
Alberta De Jetley farms 18 acres planted in a variety of crops, including lettuce and bananas, sold to the island's two resorts and other local businesses. De Jetley said she first planted pineapple for fun about 18 months ago with about 20 plants, and has since more than doubled plantings of crowns she receives from a hotel bakery.
Still, De Jetley, who once contemplated asking Dole for propagation material for 200 plants, intends to keep her pineapple harvests small for sharing with friends and making what she said is a fantastic fruit salad.
"The pineapple is so amazing," she said. "Sweet, sweet, sweet."
PINEAPPLE'S HISTORY IN HAWAI'I
1813: Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, Spanish adviser to King Kamehameha I, introduces pineapple, or hala kahiki, to Hawai'i.
1885: Capt. John Kidwell, recognized as the pioneer of Hawai'i's pineapple industry, pursues crop development trials in Manoa.
1900: "California Homesteader" Alfred W. Eames starts selling fresh pineapple at what would become Del Monte Fresh Produce (Hawaii) Inc.
1901: Visionary businessman and future "Pineapple King" James Drummond Dole incorporates Hawaiian Pineapple Co. and begins growing fruit on 60 acres in Wahiawa.
1903: Maui's missionary Baldwin family establishes a company that would bring the pineapple industry to Maui and later become Maui Land & Pineapple Co.
1922: Dole buys nearly all of Lana'i to establish the world's largest pineapple plantation.
1930: 9 million cases of canned pineapple packed by eight canneries.
1955: Pineapple production peaks at 76,700 acres planted, and 1.5 million tons of harvested fruit.
Early 1960s: Hawai'i pineapple growers supply more than 80 percent of the world's canned pineapple output.
1966: Pineapple production is firmly in decline.
1983: Del Monte ceases Hawai'i pineapple canning operations.
1988: Last pineapple plantation on Moloka'i closes.
1989: Del Monte introduces fresh-cut chilled Hawai'i pineapple, the first nationally distributed, fresh-cut, refrigerated fruit item.
1990: Dole Food Co., successor to Hawaiian Pineapple Co., announces pineapple production on Lana'i will cease by 1993.
1991: Value of Hawai'i pineapple annual sales peaks at $108 million.
1992: Dole closes its Iwilei cannery and tears down its landmark pineapple water tower a year later.
1997: Del Monte unveils a premium pineapple, Del Monte Gold, described as sweeter than traditional varieties and the first new variety of commercial pineapple in Hawai'i in more than 20 years.
1998: Maui Pineapple, the largest single pineapple grower in the state, announces plans to extend operations to Indonesia and Central America to cut costs.
2004: Del Monte reduces pineapple farming on O'ahu from 6,000 acres to 4,000 acres.
2005: Fresh pineapple production and sales sink to their lowest since the state began keeping records in 1950.
2006: Del Monte shuts down all Hawai'i pineapple operations.
2007: Maui Pineapple, Hawai'i's last producer of canned pineapple, stops canning.
2008: Maui Pineapple announces plans to cut pineapple farming from 2,000 acres to around 1,000 acres, and warns that it will have to exit the business completely if financial losses can't be reversed.
Source: state Department of Agriculture, Advertiser research
Reach Andrew Gomes at email@example.com.