History of Hawaii Agriculture

It is believed that Hawaii’s original settlers arrived here from the Marquesas between 500 and 700 AD. These first visitors to Hawaii brought with them pigs and chickens along with a variety of staple food crops including: Kalo (taro), Ko (sugar cane), Mai`a (banana), Niu (coconut), Uala (sweet potato) and `Ulu (breadfruit). Journals from the voyages of Captain Cook in 1778 document the trading for food and supplies with the native populations of both Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii.

After its discovery by western civilization new crops continued to be introduced into the islands by early settlers from around the world. Well-known Honolulu resident, Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, the Spanish advisor to King Kamehameha I, first introduced pineapple to Hawaii in 1817 with coffee coming shortly later having been imported from Brazil. Kona’s first coffee farm was started just ten years later.

During the California gold rush between 1849 and 1851 Hawaii was an important source of supplies for the miners. Hawaii agriculture boomed with Irish and sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins, oranges, molasses, and coffee all being grown to be shipped to the West Coast.

While sugarcane had been grown throughout Hawaii for many years it was with the development of the first extensive irrigation system at the Lihue Plantation on Kauai, which included a 10-mile long irrigation ditch and tunnel system, that it became one of the island’s first commercially successful sugar operation. Soon many others followed due in part to the reciprocity treaty of 1876 between the Kingdom and the United States which allowed for duty-free export of sugar, leading to a rapid expansion in sugarcane production throughout the island chain.

Over the period between 1889 and 1910 agriculture thrived in the islands. It was during this time that macadamia nuts were introduced to Hawaii and pineapple was first canned commercially in Kona. The drilling of an artesian well on the dry Ewa, Oahu plains, opened groundwater irrigation of agricultural fields and allowed for even more rapid growth of commercial plantations which included with James Dole’s planting of 61 acres of pineapple in Wahiawa.

Surprisingly rice was also an important crop during this period with over 9,400 acres under cultivation and an annual output of almost 42 million pounds - rice was the second largest crop in Hawaii.

By the 1930’s nine million cases of pineapple packed by eight canneries on Maui, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai were shipped from Hawaii to points around the world. And sugar cultivation had reached its peak with over 254.562 acres under development. Commercial farming in the islands was a success and plantation companies throughout the territory enjoyed record profits. It was never to be the same.

The years of plantation growth throughout the islands had created a need for workers that could not be filled by the local residents. Contract labor became the way to solve the problems and a long line of migrant workers were brought to Hawaii to work in the fields. They came from the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, China, Japan and beginning in 1946 the Philippines. A year later the "Great Sugar Strike" took place, when 28,000 ILWU workers at 33 plantations struck, signaling the beginning of a new era.

Hawaii became the 50th State in the union in 1959 and soon after Hawaiian pineapple growers were supplying over 80% of the world's output of canned pineapple. In 1966 things begin to slowly change as pineapple production began to decline and sugar peaked at 1,234,121 tons of raw sugar. By 1970 the number of Pineapple canneries had dropped from 9 to 3 and many smaller sugar plantations began to consolidate or close as it was discovered that these same crops could be produced for less money in other countries. This trend has continued until today when there exists in Hawaii only two sugar plantations – one on Kauai and one on Maui and two large-scale commercial pineapple operations on Maui and Oahu.

Agriculture in Hawaii in the present day is all about diversification, from tropical crops like macadamia Nuts, banana and papaya along with tropical flowers, to select garden vegetable grown exclusively for the discerning tastes of an ever increasing number of visitors. Currently there are over 5,500 farms in Hawaii that grow more than 40 crops commercially. Our macadamia nut industry represents over 45% of the world's production making it the second largest and Hawaii continues to be the only state in the nation to grow coffee with an annual production of over 7.6 million pounds grown on the islands of Hawaii, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu. The plantation days may be long gone but the legacy of commercial farming and agriculture will continue in these islands for many years.