The Coast Is Clear

More than a decade after the fall of sugar, the Hamakua Coast is ready for its day in the sun

November, 2005

When the Big Island’s Hamakua Sugar Co. announced that it would be closing down operations 13 years ago, Bill Beach, then a tractor and truck contractor, made an unusual prediction. He boldly proclaimed to his friends and neighbors that not only was the sugar industry gone for good, but the days of the fighting chicken were over as well.

“I told all of my friends who fought chickens that their birds were a sign of wealth. If you were able to raise fighting chickens that meant you not only had the extra money, but the extra time, too,” says Beach. “I said to them: ‘After this plantation goes down, boys, you ain’t going to have either.'”

The fall of king sugar was devastating. The Hamakua Coast, a 50-mile-long corridor of rolling farmland from Hilo to Waipio, not only lost its 100-year-old economic engine, but also its social and cultural heart and soul. The area’s unemployment rate reached 10.3 percent in 1994, the year the plantation officially closed its doors. Unemployment rates were almost 13 percent in some areas in the district that year.

After three years of struggle, Beach’s own business, whose biggest customer was the plantation, went bankrupt. His marriage crumbled around him, too, and, like many of his friends and neighbors, he eventually got a job at one of the Kohala Coast’s resort hotels, an hour’s drive away.

“Local people are very pragmatic. Instead of driving a truck full of sugar cane, we now drive a bus full of tourists,” says Beach. “We’ve adjusted. We’ve moved on.”

The Coast has made a slow and modest economic recovery. Unemployment rates have dropped every year since 1997’s 9.2 percent. In 2004, only 3.4 percent of Hamakua’s civilian labor force was unemployed. This year has been even more productive, with the area’s unemployment rate dipping under 3 percent through August. In 2003, the County of Hawaii issued 140 residential and commercial building permits in Hamakua valued at $10.1 million, a 52 percent increase in value over the previous year and a 65 percent increase over 1994’s 73 permits valued at $3.6 million.

Hamakua is hardly a boomtown, especially when compared to the west side of the Island. In 2003, Kona accounted for 1,529 residential and commercial building permits, which accounted for $286.5 million in value. During that year, islandwide, the county issued 4,366 permits with a value of $630.4 million. In addition, in 2005, West Hawaii’s unemployment average unemployment rate is well below 3 percent with some areas reporting rates just a hair above 1 percent.

But Beach’s prediction about the blood-sport bird was more perceptive than even he realized at the time. The chicken turned out to not only be the rural community’s leading economic indicator, but its social barometer, as well. Just as Beach foretold, after sugar, the fighting chicken became an endangered species in Hamakua, and despite the recently improved economic conditions, the bird is still rarely seen. Today, residents may have some extra money in their pockets, but with most of them spending two hours a day driving to and from work, leisure time is as rare as a cane-haul truck.

“Right now, [Hamakua] is largely a bedroom community. All those people who lost their plantation jobs are now driving to Kona and the resort areas,” says Karen Clarkson, a Realtor, who lives and works in the area. “There are people doing small farms and running various small businesses, but most of them also have other tourism jobs in Kona or Hilo.”

“We’re located halfway between Hilo and Kona, so it’s an attractive area for affordable housing,” says Barbara Franklin, a Honokaa bankruptcy attorney and Realtor. “People can look for work in either place. But now, with gas prices increasing as they are, I’m not sure many people can continue to afford making the long drive to work. The extra $100 spent on gas might push people over the edge.”


The world after the plantation was supposed to be green and fruitful. Hamakua Sugar’s demise freed up tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, which came replete with an extensive irrigation system and a network of well-maintained cane-haul roads. The future seemed clear–diversified agriculture, or “one thousand points of green,” as a 1995 community visioning statement phrased it. Planners foresaw a Hamakua with 1,000 productive small farms in place of a single plantation and its lone crop. Life would be sweet.

Today, successful specialty agricultural operations dot the coast, from premium bananas in Keaau to designer mushrooms in Laupahoehoe to precious vanilla in Ahualoa. Over the last decade, cattle have prospered in the region’s pastureland and a huge eucalyptus forest thrives in the dormant upper fields. But the coast has seen much hardship. Ring spot virus wiped out Hamakua’s burgeoning papaya industry in the late ’90s, and the consistent failure of the nearly century-old Hamakua Ditch caused numerous crop collapses and eventually led to the near extinction of farming below the irrigation system. Also, a lack of agricultural and business education doomed many former sugar-workers-turned-farmers to failure before they sowed their first seeds.

“There were great expectations that we would see a booming aquaculture industry, papaya, orchids, vegetable crops and cacao,” says Diane Ley, deputy director of the County of Hawaii’s Department of Research. “Some of the existing diversified ag businesses took [the closing of the plantation] as an opportunity. For instance, the ranching community immediately moved into former sugar lands and has established a foothold there. However, it hasn’t been a smooth transition for others. A lot of the new farmers were former sugar workers who didn’t have the skills to fully diversify.”

But Ley and a host of other county, state and federal officials as well as farmers and community members believe that, after a decade of waiting, Hamakua is ready to bloom. An alignment of economic planets seems to be forming: infrastructure repairs, government and private investment, cruise-ship tourists and political will are all converging just beyond the coast’s azure horizon.


The Hamakua Ditch, completed with much fanfare in 1910, was originally designed to transport sugar cane, rather than irrigate it. The 25-mile-long system tapped verdant Waipio Valley’s springs and streams and flumed (floated) hand-cut sugar-cane stalks from upper fields to processing plants along the Hamakua Coast. As sugar production became more mechanized over the years, the water was used to wash the plants at the mills before eventually irrigating approximately 6,000 of the Hamakua Sugar Co.’s 21,400 acres of sugar cane.

When the plantation closed, the ditch, which had been neglected for several years, was a decrepit mess and experienced a series of calamitous failures. Able to transport as much 40 million gallons of water a day in its heyday, the ditch was collecting just 8 million gallons a day (MGD) with only 2 MGD actually making it through the system, a 75 percent loss rate.

In 2001, under the Small Watersheds Act, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) led a $20-million effort that repaired or replaced all 50 of the ditch’s ancient flumes, as well as reconstructed a tunnel behind Hakalaoa Falls, upgraded the 10-million-gallon Paauilo reservoir and built a 1-million-gallon reservoir near Honokaa, among other repairs.

The five-phase project is currently in its fourth phase and is scheduled for completion in 2006. However, the project’s major renovation work has already been completed, and the ditch is running at its ideal capacity, moving 15 MGD to 20 MGD, enough to irrigate 2,500 acres of cropland and provide drinking water for 2,600 head of cattle.

“Not only is the ditch more efficient now, it’s also much more reliable,” says Dudley Kubo, planning engineer at the NRCS. “This new availability of water gives farmers below the ditch a far wider range of crops to grow.”

While the repair of the ditch is largely seen as the centerpiece of Hamakua’s rejuvenation, it is certainly not the only promising or long-lasting development along the coast.

In Paauilo, car dealer/real estate investor/rancher David De Luz Sr. has purchased the town’s old meat processing plant and rendering facility for $1 million and plans to spend 5 million dollars in renovations. According to David De Luz Sr. Enterprise’s Chief Executive Officer Victor Trevino, the company has already secured agreements with Austin-based Whole Foods, retailer of organic and natural foods, to sell the Islands’ grass-fed beef in some of the chain’s 175 stores in the U.S. and U.K.

In Honokaa, the University of Hawaii at Hilo is constructing the first phase of its North Hawaii Educational Research Center, an educational outreach center, which will service the communities of Laupahoehoe, Honokaa, Waimea, Kohala and Waikoloa. Built on the site of Honokaa’s old community hospital, the center will be able to accommodate 600 students a year, with 1,000 more studying through distance-learning technology.

In addition this year, 296,000 cruise-ship passengers will come ashore in Hilo, taking tours and sprinkling their dollars all along the Hamakua Coast. In 2006, officials at the Port of Hilo are expecting 418,000 cruise visitors.

However, maybe Hamakua’s most promising development has as much to do with infrastructure and markets as with the community’s dreams and desires. The Hamakua Ag Plan is a comprehensive, 37-page document that defines not only the community’s economic goals, but its social and cultural ones, as well. Initiated in August of 2004 by Rep. Dwight Takamine (D-Kohala to South Hilo), the Ag Plan began as modest discussions to decide how to distribute 1,050 acres of county-owned agricultural land in Paauilo. County, state and federal officials drafted a three-page document, which addressed the needs and concerns of the new farmers. Takamine took the document to the community in a series of meetings, where the Ag Plan caught on like a sugar-cane wildfire.

“It [the Ag Plan] mushroomed into a much bigger project, larger than anyone expected,” says Lori Beach, Bill’s wife and the unofficial Ag Plan coordinator. “It quickly became apparent that everything is intertwined–land-use issues, development, affordable housing, access, business development and environmental issues. You can’t address ag without addressing the rest of the community and vice versa.”

As communities throughout the state wrestle with a vibrant economy that is kicking the living daylights out of many of its citizens, Hamakua’s plan, which tries to preserve the community’s rural lifestyle and integrity, while fostering controlled economic growth, may serve as a valuable guidepost. But can Hamakua’s plan of 1,000 points of green–its combination of diversified agriculture, specialty agriculture, agritourism and cultural tourism–sustain the 6,500-plus community, let alone any other area in the state?

“One of the advantages of being dirt poor for so long is that you have a lot of dirt,” says University of Hawaii at Hilo economic professor David Hammes. “But when other places are out of their dirt and greenery, they will pay to go see it somewhere else. The return from farming isn’t very good, certainly not as good as if you put up a commercial building on your property. But the last two or three years of rising real estate are hitting people in the face. It [Hamakua’s economic model] might be a tough sell, because it still sounds like development of some sort, but it is the type that is more friendly, maintaining a lot of the things that got people to stay or move there in the first place.”


Bill Beach wholeheartedly agrees with the academics and fellow community activists and farmers who believe that Hamakua is experiencing a long-overdue rebirth. Last summer, Beach came one step closer to realizing his lifelong dream, becoming a full-time farmer. He has started planting melemele sweet potatoes in a small portion of 25 acres of farmland outside of Honokaa that he leases from the state. The potato is a forgotten Native Hawaiian variety that fell out of favor during the 1930s. The tuber’s skin eventually cures to a golden brown, while its flesh has a subtle, sweet flavor. With the help from a small grant from the University of Hawaii, he will grow melemele and distribute starter plants to a coop of six other farmers.

Beach, who still works part time as a banquet waiter in Waikoloa, believes that there is an untapped market in Hawaii for heirloom and varietal fruits and vegetables. Besides the melemele, Beach will be planting lychee, fig and mango trees, as well as coffee plants. The availability of affordable, abundant and reliable water has opened a whole new world to the farmer-in-waiting. Will it lead to a brand-new economic model for the rest of the state? Beach isn’t sure. But he does know that, soon, he can quit his other day job.

“Tastes change, markets change. I don’t know if there ever will be a centerpiece-type crop that could sustain the coast,” says Beach. “Melemele is just one of many things we plan on planting. It may catch on, it may not. Who knows? One thing is certain, we have all the significant pieces in place now. We’ve got all these little farmers trying to grow their little things. If we bring all these people together to work together, [we can] develop bigger markets, become more consistent and have better quality.

“This is a model for the world. What we do here should be what everyone does when they go about taking care of the planet,” continues Beach. “We’re not experts. But we live here, and now we’re working here again. When you’re living and working in the same community, you’re more plugged into what’s going on. You take more pride and interest in what you’re doing, and you end up doing some amazing things.”

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