The View from a Drawbridge

The random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.

The first big adventure we had in Hawaii was mountain tubing through an old sugarcane plantation. There’s much to tell! The only reason I’ve been putting off this post is that I knew it was going to require a lot of research. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Read on to find out why.

First of all, the adventure itself was through Kauai Backcountry Adventures, the same company that we’d go ziplining with two days later. (Read more about that here.) I highly recommend this company if you have the good fortune to visit Kauai. Their guides are wonderful, and their website says that they have exclusive access to do excursions in Grove Farm, a 30,000 acre plantation that is currently owned by Steve Case, the former CEO of AOL.

We would be tubing through canals and irrigation ditches that were hand built back in 1870, originally to bring water down from the mountains to irrigate the sugarcane plantation in the flat lands below. It was a very innovative idea, and soon many other farms followed suit.

The ditches were very deep and often lined with stone. It was kind of like floating down a lazy river most of the time. It was mountain water, though, so it was brisk, to say the least. But we soon acclimated to the temperature, and it was quite nice.

We bounced down a short water slide at one point. There were a few stretches of rapids, but nothing that made you feel unsafe. We also shot through several large irrigation tunnels, so it was good that they had provided us with hard hats and lights. We went through there like bumper cars, spinning and colliding with the walls and with each other. They had us cross our ankles to avoid injury. It was very quickly evident why that was a good idea.

We also came upon this wall of rich Hawaiian clay, and the guide said it was kind of a tradition to paint your face with it, so I did… and nobody else did. I thought it made the experience more fun. But it also made me feel very self-conscious.

Here are a few of our videos. Some of our photos are below.

Afterwards they took us to a picnic area and provided us with a make-your-own-sandwich lunch. The entire farm is absolutely gorgeous, and we would have never had the opportunity to see it had it not been for these tours. The tour buses took us through locked gates, and we drove at least 30 minutes down bumpy roads on the farm to reach our destination.

The guides told us that it took a 20-foot stalk of sugarcane to make a teaspoon of sugar, and an entire acre to make a 5 pound bag. That didn’t sound like a very smart business model to me. Surely other crops would be more cost effective. This was where my research began.

The only thing I can find on the internet is that it takes 3 feet of sugarcane to make a teaspoon of sugar. That’s still not ideal, but since they do grow up to 20 feet tall, it’s a little more sustainable, at least. But given that there are approximately 412 teaspoons of sugar in a 5 pound bag, and we’re saying conservatively that you get 6 teaspoons per stalk, it would take about 69 stalks to make a 5 pound bag. I then discovered that you can plant around 15,000 stalks per acre, so it takes waaaaaay less than an acre to make that bag. I’m oddly relieved.

If you’re as nerdy as I am, and want to know Sugar’s Journey from Field to Table, the linked article explains it handily. But as I was floating along on my inner tube that day, I was thinking about what this place must have been like back when the sugarcane plantation was still up and running.

It was hard work in humid weather, working at one of these places. And I assumed, as I floated, that Hawaiian colonialism was the same as colonialism the world over. In other words, I was picturing the indigenous people being worked like slaves in miserable conditions. That made me sad.

I don’t know if this is good news or not, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, when sugarcane became Hawaii’s biggest money maker in the 1830’s, it seems that the bulk of the native population had already been wiped out by European diseases. Only 16 percent of the population survived, as compared to the numbers they had in 1775, and none of that reduced population was in the least bit interested in working on a sugarcane plantation, because they knew how to sustain themselves by farming and fishing.

It turns out that, instead, these plantations had to mistreat imported workers from Japan, China, the Philippines, Portugal and Puerto Rico. They were often indentured servants and were essentially slaves. The last sugarcane plantation, which had been attempting to use their product to make biofuel without much success, shut down in 2016, but really, sugarcane’s heyday ended with statehood in 1959, when tourism became the big “cash crop” of Hawaii. If you want to know more about the history of sugarcane in Hawaii, check out this article.

Now, let’s talk about Grove Farm in particular. In 1850, these royal Hawaiian lands were “purchased” by a European guy who I won’t even name, and it went from European to European until it was owned by the Wilcox family, also European, in 1864. It stayed in his family until 2000, when Steve Case bought it under rather sketchy circumstances.

It seems that by then there were so many Wilcox heirs that the place was managed by a governing board, and according to this piece in the Star Bulletin, that board told the heirs that the place was on the verge of bankruptcy, and they should sell it immediately. To the chairman’s son-in-law. The board claimed that the place was only worth 74.50 per share. The son-in-law was offering $125 per share, so it would have been a good deal if the numbers were accurate.

In fact, there had been no appraisals or business valuations conducted. A large enough percentage of the heirs voted against that sale to prevent it from going through. It was obvious that an official value of the property was needed. So the board came up with a list of potential valuation consultants, most of which were highly reputable. But in the end, they settled on a guy who, at the time, was in a work furlough program at a jail in Oahu. He was in there for theft.

Naturally, the guy screwed up the valuation, but said it was worth between $86 and $98 per share, which was more than the original estimate, at least. But Bank of Hawaii executives later said it was worth $138 to $150 per share. In the end, Steve Case paid $152 per share, so it was a good deal, more or less. But his father’s law firm had represented Grove Farm for decades, and the board had allowed him to represent both the farm and Steve Case during negotiations. Can you say conflict of interest?

But according to this article, in 2008 the court struck down the lawsuit that was brought by the shareholders. And so Steve Case is now the third largest landholder in Kauai. The vast majority of Hawaii is not owned by native Hawaiians. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate. It also makes me have limited sympathy for the Wilcox heirs, because every square inch of this land should be returned to the heirs of the native Hawaiians whom we tricked out of the land in the first place.

In light of that, it makes me sad that the tour guides on both our excursions, all young Hawaiian natives, said, proudly, that Steve Case has protected this land from development for the next 75 years. I had to do a lot of digging on that. I can’t find anything that confirms it. I’m sure the tour boss, the one whose business is allowed exclusive access to Grove Farm, wrote their script.

What I did find is that, of the 30,000 or so acres of the farm, Case applied to the Hawaii Land Use Commission to designate 11,048 acres of it as important agricultural lands. The reason is that he will be growing biofuels there. That was in 2013. Note that the last sugarcane plantation shut down in 2016 after attempting to do the very same thing, so that’s another odd situation.

One way or another, it’s safe to assume that Steve Case is still making a profit. And according to the Department of Agriculture, he’s going to get a huge tax break as well. So yes, this beautiful tract of land will remain agricultural, and that’s good. But I doubt this rich man’s motivations were entirely altruistic.

So there you have it. Nothing is quite as it seems. And that’s true especially on colonial islands. Mountain Tubing was indeed a blast, but I can’t seem to get the bitter taste out of my mouth that formed due to what I learned afterward.

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