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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 24, 2009

Kauai sugar plantation prepares final harvest

By Diana Leone
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

E. Alan Kennett

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LIHU'E, Kaua'i Gay & Robinson Inc. expects to process the last of its sugar cane by late October, several months ahead of the previously announced closure date, the company's president announced yesterday.

The closure will leave Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on Maui as the last sugar producer in Hawai'i.

The Kaua'i crop could have been allowed to mature for another year and harvested in 2010, but the company decided to harvest it all now "while sugar prices are as high as they have been since 1980," Gay & Robinson President E. Alan Kennett said last night.

Gay & Robinson yesterday gave layoff notices to 137 workers, leaving 167 employees with the longtime kama'aina company, Kennett said. That number will shrink to a much smaller staff by the end of the year, Kennett said. The remaining employees will manage the company's cattle ranch, 320 company-owned houses for employees and retirees and embark on new alternative energy ventures.

Gay & Robinson had laid off about 45 employees prior to yesterday's announcement.

The company announced in September 2008 that it would stop producing sugar in 2010 because it was losing millions of dollars.

The current world price for sugar of 23 cents a pound is "a little silver lining in the dark cloud," Kennett said. "It helps cover our huge closing costs."

All employees and retirees will be allowed to continue renting their company-owned homes, Kennett said.

"As I talked to our employees today, it's probably the toughest job I have had since I've been here," said Kennett, who has been in the sugar business here since 1976. "To see sugar possibly go from Kaua'i not just from the West Side is a sad day."

Kaua'i Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said in a written statement: "I can't express how saddened I am for the employees and their families and for all of Kaua'i to see our last remaining sugar plantation close its doors for good.

"Although we all knew it was coming, that doesn't make it any easier. Mahalo to Gay and Robinson for continuing to house these loyal workers and their families, and for working with Dow and Pacific West Energy to create new employment opportunities. We will be working closely with all involved to keep this land in agricultural production and get these new opportunities off the ground as quickly as possible."

The first commercial sugar crop in the state was grown in 1835 in Koloa, Kennett said. Gay & Robinson started its sugar operations on Kaua'i in 1892.

About 1,000 acres of cane remain in the fields and will be harvested within a month, weather permitting, Kennett said. The company has kept about 7,500 acres in sugar cane in recent years.

Only 40,000 acres were planted in sugar statewide in 2007, down from 240,000 acres in the 1970s when the industry began its decline.

Gay & Robinson announc- ed in April it will lease 3,400 acres of its former sugar land to Dow AgroSciences for seed corn operations. Dow is gaining access to the land as the cane is harvested and is hiring some former Gay & Robinson employees, Kennett said.

The most likely suitor to potentially resume growing sugar on Kaua'i appears to be Pacific West Energy LLC. The Vancouver, Wash.-based company has a preliminary agreement with Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative regarding selling it electricity and is in talks with Gay & Robinson about leasing some of its former sugar lands and its bagasse-burning and sugar-processing facilities in Kaumakani.

Pacific West is now looking at a possible combination of sugar cane and woody plants to burn to produce electricity, President William Maloney said yesterday.