In March, Bishop Estate leased 24,000 acres of former sugar cane land on the island of Hawaii to Boston-based Prudential Timber Investments Inc. PruTimber's project, Hamakua Timber, began planting eucalyptus seedlings in field trials this fall, and the company expects to cover 16,000 acres by late 1998, with harvest coming seven years after planting. The wood will be used for high-quality fiber for paper or fiberboard, Simmons said, or may be allowed to mature to higher-value uses such as plywood core, utility lumber or even architectural detail.
"We have a year-round growing environment," said Steve Smith, who manages business and community affairs for Hamakua. "Experts tell us we can grow our trees twice as fast as they can, say, in the Pacific Northwest or the Southeastern United States."
And, for a change, Hawaii's location is not a drawback. "In terms of world markets," Simmons noted, "we're actually closest to the importing places. Japan, for example, imports a significant amount of its hardwood chips from the Southeast United States through the Panama Canal."
A second forestry project is getting underway on Kauai. Bill Cowern of Hawaiian Mahogany began planting two species of eucalyptus this week on land that went out of sugar production this fall. He expects to have 60,000 to 80,000 seedlings in the ground by March, covering 200 acres, then expand into another 800 acres. Many of the trees will be ready for harvest in seven or eight years.
Cowern hopes the reddish wood, which resembles mahogany, will be made into flooring, door frames, cabinets and furniture--high-end products that can boost the local economy.
"If you grow a green bean, there is only so far you can take that bean in terms of value and jobs," he said. "If you grow wood, the value can be multiplied many times over."
The change in Hawaiian agriculture is evident on a personal level to Smith, who grew up in a sugar family on Kauai. As he works to establish tree farming on the island of Hawaii, his father, a retired superintendent with McBryde Sugar Co., is helping dismantle a sugar mill at the other end of the state.
"Timber is a different world commodity," Smith said, "but we have the same hope as the original sugar pioneers that it will do well."
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The combines sales of sugar and pineapple have declines markedly since 1986 as Hawaii's agricultural sector has moved away from these mainstays and toward other crops. Pineapple and sugar sales versus sales of other agricultural products, in millions of dollars:
Diversified agriculture* (1995): $275.6
Sugar and Pineapple (1995): $215.1
* Includes all crops and livestock produced in Hawaii other than sugar and pineapple.
Source: Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service.