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Maui Sugar: End of an Era – HC&S Operations Nearing End

Wendy Osher · December 6, 2016, 7:53 PM HST (Updated December 7, 2016, 1:13 PM) · 23 Comments
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Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar company is just two weeks away from the end of its final harvest.

The company plans to commemorate the closure on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016 with a tournahauler bringing in the last load of sugarcane to the Puʻunēnē Mill.

A&B CEO and President Chris Benjamin and HC&S General Manager Rick Volner will address HC&S employees, retirees and members of the Maui community.

During the event, company representatives will further explain cattle pasture trials and share plans on the progress of diversified agriculture.

During a visit in August, we learned about several trial crops under rotation in Central Maui.

Capturing the Ideal Grow Season:

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“We have three acres of soy beans, three acres of corn, four acres of sorghum and two acres of sunflowers.  Within each acre, there’s three different varieties of corn, three different varieties of soy beans–mainly so we can try and capture the ideal growing season.  Since every corn hybrid has a specific growing season, we’re trying to find ones that are going to give us the biggest, tallest growth,” said Shyloh Stafford-Jones, diversified agriculture project manager at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company.

Stafford-Jones said the plantation had trials with a 120-day corn, which was planted in two different locations.  One of the test crops grew twice as high as the one planted off of the Mokulele Highway, “I think mostly because the wind over here is so strong, when it was young, it blew it down a lot, so the corn put in a lot more energy in trying to stay upright instead of growing.”  He said the corn crop itself was about the same size, just shorter.

“The soybeans, we have several different grow seasons.  Soybeans are determinate or indeterminate, so the early season beans are the ones that are going start flowering when the nights get longer than the days.  Then when the night gets at a certain length, they’ll start podding,” said Stafford-Jones.

“These longer season beans, they’ll start flowering, but they’ll keep growing until they reach a certain growing degree unit like the corn does,” he said.  “The ideal with beans is you want to get as much linear growth out of them because they’ll put out more branches.  So everywhere there’s a node, there’s going to be a pod.  If you get bigger, bushier beans, you’re going to have more pods,” said Stafford-Jones.

Insect pressure; Pigs Running out of Sugar to Hide

According to Stafford-Jones, the sorghum faced a lot of insect pressure.  “We’ve had a lot of different issues come up that were kind of unexpected.  The birds really hit us hard here in the soybeans and sunflowers.  The safflower, we had to actually replant and cover them with nets to get them to germinate before the birds ate them all.  That was something that I had never seen before.  The pigs have caused a lot of damage in the corn lately since they’re running out of sugar cane to hide in and eat, they migrated to our corn plots.”

Benefits of Mechanical Harvest

“The sugar cane is pretty unique as a crop.  It’s really big and kind of hard to handle.  All of the crops that we’re looking at now are more mechanically harvested,” said Stafford-Jones, who noted that the machinery will allow workers to mow down 100 acres more efficiently. “The mill right now isn’t really set up to process any of these crops for anaerobic digestion.  It’s just set up to make sugar.”

Experimenting with Crop Rotation, Maximizing Yield

“We took advantage of the maximum growth during the summer time, and we wanted to see what would happen if we planted in January… We tried to stagger our plantings throughout the entire year just so we can see these crops in different seasons and different day lengths to know what they were going to do in the future so that we could try to maximize the yield by planning it out with a rotation,” said Stafford-Jones.

Stafford-Jones said he noticed a more ideal growth over the summertime with the longer day length.  Within the 140 acre trial area, there are three different irrigation setups.  “The old sugar cane system was all on 9-foot spacing, so we’re trying to see if we could just use the same system and get it to work since all of these crops are planted in 30 inch rows.”

According to Stafford-Jones, the team learned about the ideal conditions for the various crops and area specific impacts.  “A lot of the sorghum in the 9-foot spacing took quite a bit of time to germinate.  The fertilizer had some problems moving that far.  The 30-inch was almost too much water and it kind of flooded the root zone and stunted the growth.  It seems the 60-inch is ideal so we moved that into our future practices… and we started deep injecting the irrigation tape so that we can get a lot of years out of it,” said Stafford-Jones.

“So we’ve learned a lot from this plot and after we harvest it, we’ll probably work all of these cover crops down and whatever remaining residue we have and kind of restart with our deep injection tape at 60-inches and then start trying different either fertilizer schemes or rotational crops, just so we can keep continuing.  We know we can grow the sorghum pretty well now, so we’re going to see if we can rotate to something else,” he said.

Rotating Crops for Efficient Use of Land, Resources

“We’ve got 140 acres in sorghum today, so we’re relatively confident on the yields and productivity there, and we’re trying to tailor the mix of crops that we would cycle in with them after, before we can get a better determination,” said Jerrod Schreck, part of the diversified agriculture trials team at HC&S.

“So the reason that we’re looking at all of these crops is to farm them in a rotation,” he said.  “Sorghum for example, we think we can get three or four growth cycles out of it before harvesting it out.  Then we’d follow that with another crop, perhaps soybean, which puts different nutrients in the soil, fixes nitrogen and pulls out other nutrients out of the soil. And then from there, maybe go with a corn, and then another oil seed crop like sunflowers and a cover crop,” said Schreck.

“The purpose of farming in large blocks in a rotation manner is you reduce the inputs in the plot, you get better use of the water because the soil is holding more water, and you’re more efficient with the resource,” said Schreck.

Stafford-Jones had a similar explanation saying, “Once everything starts maturing and we get close to harvesting, we’ll harvest all of this stuff and everything will be rotated onto new acres.  So the corn plot won’t be a corn plot.  It will move to another plot.  So in the grand scheme when we have the whole plantation up and running, everything will be on a rotational process so we break up the insect pressures that are specifically after corn, or we break up disease pressures that are specifically after corn or beans,” he said.

Stafford-Jones continued saying, “The soybeans are legumes, so they’ll help add nitrogen back to the soil.  So we’ll probably follow that up with corn since they use a lot of nitrogen.  The sorghum is going to stay at least a year, so we’ll probably add a cover crop mix afterwards to break up the compaction.”

Sustainable Business: Bio Fuels, Costs Involved, Actual Yields

“From each of those cycles, you’re getting different commercial uses.  The oil seed crops can be used for biodiesel and goods or other bio fuel pathways.  The sorghum and corn can be used for silage and for anaerobic digestion.  So what’s important now is to understand how much it costs to grow these crops, what the actual yields are, and what inputs are required so we can determine if it can be a sustainable business,” said Schreck.

“We’re just trying to prove the irrigation, prove the concept, test the pest impacts, and if it makes sense, then we’ll scale up from there, but before we go commercial, I would expect to see a large scale block rotation that could be a year or more in length,” Schreck said.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served more than 15 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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