Love it or hate it, sugar is the agricultural king on Maui…for a few more months anyway. Since 1882, sugar has dominated the terrain of the Valley Isle’s isthmus, and will do so until the end of 2016, after which the agricultural landscape of Maui has no choice but to change. On Sunday, October 23rd, myself and other members of the Maui Camera Club were invited to take a tour of the still operational Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Pu’unene sugar mill. The Pu’unene mill is the last operating sugar mill in the Hawaiian islands and it was an honor and a privilege to be able to walk through such a major piece of modern Hawaii’s history before it becomes a memory.
As we walked through the mill—which runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during harvest season—our senses were assaulted from all angles. As we walked through the dirt and mud, we could only hear the sound of heavy machinery. The massive cane haulers or Tournahaulers were sitting idle, patiently waiting their turn to unload their 60 tons of sugar cane onto the conveyor belt where it begins to be washed. Water, mud, sugar cane, rocks, and other airborne debris are found everywhere, so you really have to have your head on a swivel as you traverse the metal stairs that lead you into the heart of the mill. The sense of danger in an environment like this is made abundantly clear when you see how quick and efficient hundreds of tons of six to twelve-foot stalks of sugar cane move along the production line on their way to a sticky, sweet, pulpy demise.
From outside, where the Tournahaulers unload their cargo, to inside the mill where the stalks are crushed and the sugar cane juice is squeezed out, the lighting was a challenge when trying to photograph the production line. I found myself constantly changing the ISO settings on my camera to capture the right mood in each shot I was trying for. Along with the internal settings on my camera, everybody on the tour had to be vigilant keeping their camera lens free of flying debris (mud, bagasse, water) and from fogging up from the heat and steam coming out of the machines.
One of the most amazing aspects in the process to make sugar is the mode of transportation used to get the sugar cane from the fields to the mill. Standing 14 feet tall, 84 feet long, with 8 foot diameter tires, and 750 horsepower engines, everything about the Tournahaulers is massive (including the price tag of $1.5 million to buy one new). These beasts can carry up to sixty tons of sugar cane per trip, which they do multiple times throughout their shifts.
Nothing on the outside of the mill stays clean, but this sign put up a valiant fight.
The steam, the lighting, and the tons of tiny little bits of debris flying through the air made for some unique photo opportunities.
Instead of looking up all the time, sometimes you have to look down to reflect on things…
…but then again, looking up opens new perspectives, like catching the moon above the wafting steam plume.
Bagasse is the pulpy, fibrous remains of the cane stalks once the juice has been extracted from it. Eventually the bagasse is used as biofuel or in some cases building material (in fact our home has canec walls). The picture below shows a warehouse being filled with tons of bagasse. If you look towards the light in the upper left corner, you can kind of see how much debris is flying around in there.
At the end of this year’s harvest in December, the mill will close its doors forever and sugar will no longer be produced commercially anywhere in the state of Hawaii. To most people, this might sound like no big deal, as Hawaii has plenty of other agricultural avenues to pursue; to others, who might not understand why sugar is so important to the island, they will be glad to see the harvesting stopped, but the reality is, the sugar plantations of the past helped make the face of Hawaii the diverse melting pot it is today.
Personally, it makes me sad to see this part of Maui’s agriculture ending, which made touring the mill before it closed all the more sweeter.