HONOLULU — Sugar was once king in Hawaii, steering the economy and politics while shaping the multicultural identity and colorful pidgin English language of these islands.
But the once sweet and thriving industry has moved closer to extinction here with Gay & Robinson Inc.'s announcement it is leaving the sugar business after 119 years because of skyrocketing costs and mounting multimillion-dollar losses.
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Sugarcane will still be raised in G&R's red volcanic soil on the lush island of Kauai. Rather than catering to America's sweet tooth, the crop will be converted into ethanol to feed vehicles and the nation's growing appetite for renewable energy.
The family-owned business will lease its 7,500 acres and facilities to other companies that plan to produce ethanol and electricity, but not sugar.
"Our losses were simply too great. We just had to stop the bleed," said E. Alan Kennett, G&R's president and general manager.
G&R, with its Sept. 10 announcement, is the latest Hawaiian sugar grower to abandon the business or close in the past two decades, leaving deteriorating smokestacks as aging monuments to the industry's heyday.
After the company harvests its final crop in mid-2010, it will end the storied sugar-producing history on Kauai, where the first successful sugarcane plantation in the islands was started in 1835.
It will also leave Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. (HC&S), which has a 35,000-acre operation on Maui, as the lone sugar producer in the state.
"We've seen the closure of all the other plantations over the course of the last 20 years, so it's not a wake-up call," said Frank Kiger, general manager of HC&S. "It's an acknowledgment that it's a really tough business to be in."