In Hawaii, we are blessed with rich, fertile soil. In fact, we often feel at Gingerhill that we are almost too fertile! On your Hawaii organic vacation with us, you will notice that produce, trees, and weeds alike flourish in our nitrogen-rich soils, even in spite of the vog-induced acid rain and fluctuating rainfall. Sometimes it is hard to eat and weed enough to keep up with it all.

Those who spend their Hawaii organic vacation with us praise our rich landscape and fecund greenery. However, we can’t attribute all of our great agricultural fortune to the land itself. Long ago, Polynesians settlers introduced a variety of crops and practices that continue to influence Hawaiian agriculture today. Later, white settlers further impacted Hawaiian agriculture, introducing new crops and cultivating massive industries around them. In this week’s post, we want to explore where Hawaiian agriculture has been so we can better understand and appreciate where it is today.

Native Hawaiian Agriculture

The Polynesians first set foot on the Hawaiian Islands between 500 and 700 C.E. after voyaging throughout the south pacific. The beliefs and practices of the original Polynesian settlers of the islands have endowed Hawaii with a rich cultural legacy, and it is to them that we owe thanks for prevailing Native Hawaiian culture.

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions of the original Polynesian settlers was their rich agricultural tradition. The Polynesians introduced pigs and chickens from Asia, and began cultivating a variety of imported fruits and vegetables, including ‘Awa (kava), Kalo (taro), Ki (ti leaves), Ko (sugar cane), Mai’a (banana), Niu (coconut), Noni, ‘Ohe (bamboo), ‘Olena (turmeric), ‘Uala (sweet potato), Uhi (yam), Ulu (breadfruit), and ginger.

Native Hawaiians practiced both wet and dry land farming, as Hawaii’s diverse array of microclimates permits the adoption of multiple agricultural methodologies. The Native Hawaiian Mahi ai, or farmer, practiced agriculture as a way of life. Agriculture was integral to Native Hawaiian’s polytheistic religion, which required farmers to pray to the deities of fertility and abundance to secure a fruitful harvest. Agriculture was also the cornerstone of family life, as all family members played a role in providing for the family, be it through fishing, planting, harvesting, or preparing food. Indeed, one of the reasons that taro became so prominent was that Native Hawaiians believed it to symbolize family.

The Arrival of the Settlers

It was not until 1778, when European voyager Captain Cook arrived on the Big Island, that Hawaiian agriculture witnessed a significant shift in methods and production. There was a massive influx of new agricultural products that you can still enjoy today on your Hawaii organic vacation, including:

  • The orange, which was introduced in 1792 and remains a popular Hawaiian agricultural commodity.
  • Cattle, which Captain George Vancouver of California introduced in 1793.
  • Sandalwood, the trading of which peaked between 1810 and 1825.
  • Pineapple and coffee, which Do Francisco de Paula y Marin, Spanish advisor to King Kamehameha, introduced in 1813.
  • Mango, which first arrived in 1824.
  • Rice, which was first planted in in 1858 and by 1907 occupied 9,400 acres of land and, as the second most prominent Hawaiian export, reached output levels of 42 million pounds per year.
  • Macadamia nuts, which William H. Purvis introduced in 1881. However, it was not until 1925, when Ernest Van Tassel established Hawaii’s original, 75-acre Macadamia nut farm on Round Top in Honolulu, that the cultivation of macadamia nuts began to accelerate. In 1929, Van Tassel purchased 100 acres in Keahoe intended for macadamia nut cultivation, and in 1931 he built the first macadamia nut processing factory in Kakaako. By 1937, the mass production of macadamia nuts was under way.
  • The solo papaya, a smaller, sweeter papaya from Barbados and Jamaica introduced in 1911 that boosted papaya sales.

The list of fruits and vegetables grown in Hawaii is seemingly endless. However, three crops in particular had particularly significant economic and sociocultural impacts: coffee, pineapple, and sugar.

Cornerstone Crop #1: Coffee

While the Spanish advisor to the King introduced coffee in 1813, coffee cultivation did not become widespread until John Wilkinson later introduced coffee from Brazil. H.N. Greenwell is accredited with founding the coffee industry by first planting coffee in Kona in 1828. By the 1830’s, coffee had become a commercial crop.

The coffee industry did not flourish unbridled. To the contrary, it experienced numerous setbacks over the course of the century. Drought, infestations, and labor shortages in the 1860’s resulted in the mass closure of Hawaii coffee plantations. Only those in Kona and Hamakua remained. By the 1890’s, however, the industry had largely recovered. In fact, economic boom in both Europe and America resulted in a sharp increase in the demand for Kona coffee. Increasing demand effectively drove up market prices, resulting in a coffee boom in Kona. Flourishing trade was especially beneficial to Hawaii’s Japanese population, for 80% of coffee farmers were Japanese by the early 20th century.

Coffee took another blow again in 1929 as a result of the Great Depression. Many coffee farmers went bankrupt, and international poverty generated an acute decrease in demand. Thanks to American Factors, which granted coffee farmers a massive debt reduction in 1938, coffee was back in business ten years after the Depression. Just 20 years later, coffee production reached its height, producing 15 million pounds of green coffee. Coffee remains a staple of the Hawaiian economy today, as it raked in $62 million in 2016. Your stay is not a true Hawaii organic vacation unless you’ve tried local, organic, 100% Kona coffee.

Cornerstone Crop #2: Pineapple

Like coffee, pineapple was introduced n 1813 but did not take off until several years later. The origination of the pineapple industry is largely attributed to Captain John Kidwell. Kidwell began developing pineapple in Oahu in 1885 and, with the help of John Emmeluth, built the first pineapple cannery in Waipahu just seven years later. By 1897, export levels had reached 150,000 pecks, valued at $14,000.

In 1898, one of the original California Homesteaders, Alfred W. Earnes, arrived in Hawaii and began to cultivate pineapple. His company would later become Del Monte Fresh Produce (Hawaii) Inc. Several others were to follow: James Drummond Dole bought 61 acres for pineapple cultivation in Wahiawa in 1900 and built the Iwilei Cannery seven years later; and in 1902, Byron Clark established the Tropical Fruit Company for the purpose of growing pineapple.

The growth of the pineapple industry continued to accelerate for the first half of the 20th century, and it comprised a significant portion of Hawaii’s agricultural economy. Despite the first labor strike of unionized pineapple workers in 1947, pineapple production peaked in 1955 with 76,700 acres planted. Though pineapple production has steadily declined since the mid 20th century, you can still find sweet, juicy Maui Gold and Sugarloaf pineapples throughout the islands on your Hawaii organic vacation.

Cornerstone #3: Sugar

Sugar has what is perhaps that most impactful and extensive legacy in Hawaii. Sugar was introduced in 1841. A treaty for duty-free sugar exports between the United Kingdom and United States soon followed, fueling the rapid growth of Hawaii’s sugar economy.

The sugar economy was a culturally significant one. The founding of the Waimanalo Sugar Company in 1878 prompted the creation of railroad tracks and locomotive engines, thus incentivizing Hawaiian industrialization. It also necessitated the construction of ditches and other irrigation methods that would gain ground in Hawaii. Island life revolved around sugar plantations—literally. Sugar companies constructed residential communities around their massive plantations in which their many workers lived. They even created schools for employees’ children to attend.

Alongside the growth of the sugar industry occurred significant population expansion. Foreigners flocked to Hawaii by the thousands seeking jobs on sugar plantations. Indeed, in 1946, 6,000 Filipino workers immigrated in search of jobs on sugar and pineapple plantations. 28,000 unionized workers on 33 plantations conducted the “Great Sugar Strike,” in 1946, complicating sugar cultivation. Nonetheless, sugar reached peak production in 1966. Both the sugar and pineapple industry suffered several strikes throughout the 60’s and 70’s, accelerating the decline of both. By the mid-90’s, international competition, increasing price of labor, and expanding tourism trade had rendered both industries virtually obsolete. Nonetheless, we still propagate sugarcane in Hawaii and enjoy its many nutritional benefits. We love to offer guests fresh pressed sugar cane juice to complete their Hawaii organic vacation experience.

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