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Specialty Crops Are Replacing the Fruit That Symbolizes Hawaii

The state's pineapple industry withers amid competition from Latin America and Asia, forcing diversification.

April 25, 2006|From the Associated Press

WAIALUA, Hawaii — With Hawaii's famous pineapple industry slumping in the face of foreign competition, specialized crops such as noni, papaya and macadamia nuts are beginning to bear fruit.

For many, pineapples symbolize America's 50th state. Now, however, they can be grown and shipped to the United States more cheaply from Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, China, India and Costa Rica.

Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. announced in February that it would end its Hawaii pineapple operations by mid-2008 and lay off about 700 employees. At one time Hawaii's pineapple plantations had to bring in workers from Asia.

"We're losing what Hawaii once had, but we're moving forward to a better time," said Alan Wong, a prominent local chef and owner of restaurants including the Pineapple Room. "If you want a taste of Hawaii, you can have it in ways you never had before."

Wong remembers working as a teenager on the pineapple fields of central Oahu for $1.60 an hour. Now, parts of the island's huge plantations have been handed over to small farmers or developed into subdivisions and shopping complexes.

"It was a different time," Wong said. "It's a little sad."

But as Hawaii's traditional crops have declined, farmers have shifted to more specialized food products that sell for premium prices.

"It became unprofitable to farm," said papaya farmer Ken Kamiya as he loaded the fruits from his trees into boxes. "In order for agriculture to really expand, we need to export. We need to get the fruits out of here and the money in here."

The transition to niche fruits and vegetables has been steadily growing during the last 20 years.

Revenue from products such as coffee, flowers, mangos and other tropical fruits has increased to $403 million in 2004 from $204 million in 1984, according to the state Department of Agriculture. By comparison, pineapple production was $83.1 million in 2004, down from $88.9 million in 1984.

Pineapple fields covered only about 13,000 acres on Hawaii in 2004, down from 35,000 acres in 1987. Many of the same farmers who once harvested pineapple now grow the new crops, and the same will probably happen with some of the workers at Del Monte who are losing their jobs.

Premium fruits such as the round, pale and bumpy noni are helping to fill the void left by pineapple. The bitter-tasting noni juice -- which sells for about $30 a bottle -- is being promoted as a remedy for fever, skin infections, stomach pain and respiratory ailments.

"Everyone is trying to do what we're doing here," said Laakea Kamauoha, president of the Kamauoha Foundation, which educates farmers and helps get their local products to market. "Noni is a product that we're looking to use to get farmers back on the land. A lot of land is now open."

Macadamia nut production also has increased in recent years, as more pineapple fields become available, said Dana Gray, chairman of Oils of Aloha, which processes macadamia nut oil.

"There's an impression that after sugar and pineapple went, agriculture was dead, and we would just turn the islands over to tourism. That's not the case," Gray said. "Agriculture is important. Hawaii should be green and not covered by houses."

At Dean Okimoto's herb and salad greens farm in Waimanalo on southeastern Oahu, the narrow green rows of inches-high arugula, basil and chili peppers add to dishes at 120 restaurants.

"Farmers are having to change to meet market demands," said Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.

In many ways, the loss of pineapples is a natural response to globalization trends, said Sandra Kunimoto, Board of Agriculture chairwoman. Poorer countries have lower labor and land costs, and it's more efficient for them to grow common fruits in bulk, she said.

With global competition, American farmers face the need to diversify, Kunimoto said.

"It's opened up everybody's eyes to what is possible," she said.

Pineapples will always be grown in Hawaii but in decreasing numbers, farmers say. The demand for new, exotic varieties will determine how popular they are.

The Dole plantation in Wahiawa in central Oahu is still a major tourist attraction, but it now reaches beyond pineapple, with a new garden that features a wide variety of tropical agriculture, a maze and a train ride. A popular refreshment for locals and tourists is still its ultimate pineapple float: pineapple ice cream floating in Hawaiian pineapple juice.

Another Hawaii pineapple brand, Maui Gold, emphasizes its sweet, juicy flavor and its local origins to attract new customers, said Brian Nishida, president of Maui Pineapple Co.

"Imagine being a tourist and coming to Hawaii and not having pineapple," Nishida said. "We are very much niche players.... We believe that gives us an advantage over the mass marketers."

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