The Mālama ‘Āina vision for Maui’s Former Sugarcane Lands

Just over a year ago, the last sugarcane harvest by Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company marked the end of an era in Maui’s Central Valley. In the early Plantation Era, Hawaii’s multiethnic character was established as Chinese, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese laborers were brought in to work the fields. Plantation camps and towns dotted a vast green expanse of cane fields that were crisscrossed by irrigation ditches and by rail lines that brought cane to the mills.

Over the past 50 years, sugarcane cultivation became a highly mechanized, chemical-intensive, and polluting industrial operation. Yet with the globalization of markets and free trade agreements it also became increasingly difficult for Hawaiian sugar producers to compete on the international market. One-by-one, sugar mills were shuttered on the Big Island, Kauai, West Maui, and Oahu, until only Central Maui’s commercial sugar operations remained. But by 2015, Maui’s sugar industry was operating at a $30 million annual loss, and was no longer a viable enterprise.

Over the past year, HC&S has closed down, the Puunene mill has fallen quiet, and traffic on the Haleakala Highway no longer stops and waits for 80 foot long cane haulers to cross the road like lumbering mechanical dinosaurs. The towering pre-dawn mushroom clouds that rose up from controlled cane fires on the valley floor are a thing of the past.  And for the hundreds of Maui residents employed by HC&S, a way of life has ended.

A question seems to hang in the air over the fallow fields of central Maui: “What’s next?”

One person who has some answers to that question is Jenny Pell, a Maui-based international permaculture consultant. Jenny is the lead author of Mālama ‘Āina: A Conversation About Maui’s Farming Future, a report commissioned by the local organization Maui Tomorrow. This post provides an overview of that report, and subsequent posts will go into greater depth on certain aspects of the vision.

Click here to download the Mālama ‘Āina report.

Click here to find out more about Maui Tomorrow and how you can support their excellent work.

A new vision rooted in old values

The Mālama ‘Āina report provides an exciting look at how Maui's Central Valley can transition to regenerative agriculture after more than a century of monocrop sugar cultivation. As defined in the report, mālama ‘āina is a traditional Hawaiian value that means to “care for and nurture the land so it can give back all we need to sustain life for ourselves and our future generations” (quoting Puanani Rogers of the Ho`okipa Network).

The concepts and practices of regenerative agriculture hold promise for Maui residents and farmers to once again approach the Central Valley lands with mālama ‘āina after a 150-year lapse. Among the central ideas of regenerative agriculture are:

  • Building healthy soil is a central focus.
  • Locally-appropriate perennial crops are emphasized.
  • Both ecological and economic resilience are strived for.
  • A diversity of food, fuel, and fiber crops are grown.
  • Humanely-raised livestock are integrated, and help cycle nutrients.
  • A thriving local economy is promoted with socially-just business models.
  • Farms should not cause damage to regional soils, water sources and ecosystems.

To be successful, implementing regenerative agriculture is an ongoing process that relies on an initial investment of strategic planning and careful farm design. The eventual farm will be built upon what is referred to as the ‘mainframe’, or set of infrastructural elements that are tailored to a specific site. Goals of the mainframe include repairing and avoiding soil erosion, effectively capturing and conserving water, and building paths, roads, and structures in a way that does not cause harm. Attention to mainframe planning is especially important at a site like Maui’s Central Valley, where rainfall is limited, and strong trade winds are common.

Regenerative techniques for the former sugarcane lands

Regenerative techniques that will likely be important on Maui include:

  • Building a network of windbreaks. Windbreaks between farm fields protect against soil erosion, as well as water stress and physical damage to plants.
  • Contour farming. Crops are planted so that field rows run along contours – they are at roughly the same elevation, rather than running parallel to a slope. In this way each row can serve as a small dam that slows the runoff of rainfall or irrigation water, and promotes the slow infiltration of water into the soil.
  • Adding organic matter to the soil helps promote healthy soil ecology, adds valuable nutrients, and can help the Central Valley’s porous soils retain moisture. Ideally compost is produced onsite from other farm activities, including raising livestock or planting green manures – often nitrogen-fixing crops with leaves that can be harvested and used to feed the soil.
  • Keeping soils continually covered with plants and other organic materials brings benefits including preventing topsoil from drying out and blowing away.
  • Planting tree crops. In addition to providing fruits and nuts, tree crops perform important functions including serving as windbreaks, stabilizing are aerating soils with their roots, and helping cool the landscape by intercepting solar energy before it is absorbed into the ground.
  • Holistic livestock grazing. Rotational grazing techniques help prevent overgrazing and can actually help sequester atmospheric carbon in soils. Elaborate systems can be designed in which cattle, pigs, and chickens are grazed in sequence to aid in nutrient cycling and pest control.

Contrast a healthy living soil rich in organic matter to what were for several decades cane fields often left bare and exposed following every harvest. Soils left exposed to the elements ended up as wind-blown dust that settled on any and every exposed surface in Kihei, Paia, and elsewhere, including the once thriving reefs of Maalaea and North Kihei.

 And the winner for “best soil-building crop” is… Sugarcane!?

While potential crops like hemp and sunflowers have been getting a lot of attention on Maui, among the surprises to be found in the Mālama ‘Āina report is that: “Sugarcane is the champion crop with respect to carbon sequestration and soil building.” Raw cane juice is also highly nutritious (for people), and cane is also valuable as a fodder crop for livestock. Case studies from Mexico and Brazil show that no-till and no-burn approaches to growing sugar cane have been successful. This is especially when sugarcane is complemented with nitrogen-fixing cover crops like sun hemp (Crotalaria juncea) or planted in rotation with peanuts or soybeans.

A wealth of information

The Mālama ‘Āina report contains several international examples of regenerative farming in practice. The case studies and watercolor paintings in the report convey the impression that regenerative farming is entirely attainable.  If others can do it – then why can’t we do it here on Maui where the climate and landscape are so favorable?

Other sections of the report discuss water availability and soil issues on Maui, along with the great potential for new agricultural enterprises. A series of appendices to the report provide maps showing rainfall distribution on Maui, important agricultural lands, and proposed land uses for different areas within the former cane lands. Following the maps are a series of tables listing potential crops for food, animal forage, fuel, and fiber, along with species for dryland windbreaks, and information on the roles of different types of livestock.

An extensive list of references on topics specific to Maui and regenerative agriculture in general is included at the end of the report.

Beyond enlightened farming techniques

Transitioning to regenerative agriculture on Maui’s former cane lands will be a long-term endeavor, with many intermediate steps along the way. Now is a moment of opportunity to lay the foundation for a healthy future for Maui farming, before other plans and directions are locked in.

The Mālama ‘Āina vision relies on securing access to the former cane lands for farmers who have an interest in pursuing regenerative techniques. Access to water is also required, along with local government policies that will allow housing to be built on or near farms.  If those steps can be achieved, some means of coordinating landscape-level planning will be also required, rather than having each individual farmer working in isolation. This will allow large-scale infrastructural elements like roads, irrigation ditches, and windbreaks to be planned and built in a cohesive and intelligent way, and can encourage collaboration and resource sharing.

An upcoming post will explore alternative institutional and land ownership approaches for the former cane lands.