Hawaii's pineapple industry goes sour Islands' symbol can't compete in world market.

December 26, 1991|By New York Times

LANAI CITY, Hawaii -- For the past 13 years Kathleen Ruaburo dressed for work in thick rubberized pants and goggles and spent her days in the heat and the dust, just as her immigrant Filipino father did, picking pineapples on the Dole plantation.

Now she dons a crisp white jacket with gold buttons and sets tables for wealthy tourists at the new Manele Bay Hotel here.

Ruaburo's transition tells the story of pineapples in Hawaii. The crop that symbolizes the state and for decades has been a mainstay of the islands' economy is almost gone. Hawaiian pineapples can no longer compete in the world market.

Over the next 18 months, crews will harvest the last planting on this island, once the largest pineapple plantation in the world. Then the fields will go to alfalfa and oats, and the pineapple crews will either have to accept jobs in two new luxury hotels or leave the island for work.

It is a future that some welcome and some fear on this tiny island, Lanai, where 2,144 residents still live an isolated plantation life that has scarcely changed since James Drummond Dole started growing pineapples here 69 years ago.

A big worry is that the Hawaiian economy will be just as dependent as ever on one industry. When the hotels were first proposed, pineapple cultivation was expected to continue and tourism was intended as a way to diversify the types of jobs here.

But gradually, Dole managers say, it became clear that pineapples were no longer profitable enough.

Seventy-two miles away in Honolulu, Dole Packaged Foods Co. on Dec. 1 began laying off about 500 workers at the big cannery near downtown that has processed the Lanai fruits for more than half a century.

Its largest competitor, Del Monte, ended canning almost a decade ago. Only one canner remains in Hawaii, Maui Land & Pineapple Co., which produces private labels for supermarkets. The Dole brand will stay on the shelves, but the pineapples will come from its plantations in Asia, as some do now.

Some Hawaiian pineapples will be grown for local consumption and to provide fresh fruit to markets on the West Coast of the mainland, a trade that remains profitable.

But Michael F. O'Brien, general manager of Dole Hawaii, says Hawaii can no longer compete in the much larger world market for canned pineapple and juice because labor is cheaper in Thailand, the Philippines and other countries.

By 1990, Hawaii's share of the world market had shrunk to 10 percent, he said.

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