The rise, demise, and comeback story of the Hawaiian pineapple
WRITTEN BY SARAH SCHULTZ
From upside-down cakes to poolside piña coladas, you can get your pineapple fix just about anytime, anywhere (though the jury’s still out on if it belongs on pizza). Fresh pineapple, however, is harder to come by.
It takes about 18-24 months for one to reach maturity, and once picked, the fruit won’t continue to ripen. It’s neither a pine nor an apple, but several berries fused together around a single core. And like money, it doesn’t grow on trees, but on spiky tropical bushes that bear one fruit at a time. Pineapples are grown by propagation, and a common way to propagate is cutting off the crown and planting it in the soil.
Hailing from South America, the first pineapple documented on the islands was in 1813, when botanist Don Francisco de Paula Marin wrote in his diary: “This day I planted pineapples and an orange tree.” Canned and fresh pineapple production and sales experienced radical growth on the islands during the 20th century, under the watch of big players like Dole, Del Monte, and Maui Land & Pineapple Company. Since the late 1980s and into the 21st century, canneries have closed and companies have left the islands for cheaper, quicker, and less regulated production. Still a declining export, the industry now relies on local demand, and its supply lies largely in the hands of smaller farms.
THE DOLE ENTERPRISE
Years after Marin’s poignant diary entry, in 1894, Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by her opposition. This was led by a man named Sanford Ballard Dole, who would later become the first governor of the Territory of Hawaii after its annexation by the United States government. While Sanford played a pivotal role in the downfall of the last Hawaiian dynasty, it’s his cousin (once removed) James who’s known today as the “Pineapple King.”
A household name nationwide, the Dole Food Company made its way into our hearts, homes, and school lunch boxes by way of Hawaii. James Drummond Dole, a Harvard-educated agriculturalist, came to Oahu in 1899 and starting experimenting with various tropical crops. He landed on the pineapple business, and, eventually outgrowing his land on Oahu, looked to a neighboring island.
The island of Lanai has only one town; a small one that boasts a big name. Lanai City was built back in the 1920s to house Dole employees who came to work in the then-bustling pineapple fields. In 1922, James shelled out $1.1 million for the vast majority of Lanai’s acreage, an incredible amount at the time. He plowed his way through the land to create a plantation that would come to produce 75% of the world’s pineapples, thus earning its nickname, the “Pineapple Isle.” All pineapple production was eventually halted in 1992.
While no longer commercially grown on Lanai, the island still pays homage to the formerly industrious fruit at its Pineapple Festival every year. Returning to its roots on Oahu, a new Dole Plantation opened to the public in 1989, and with over 1 million annual guests, it primarily profits from tours and attractions, but it still grows pineapple commercially on over two acres. The majority of Dole pineapples sold on the mainland today are imported from Latin America.
THE COMEBACK KID
About nine miles west of Lanai, Maui proved itself a gold mine for pineapples, too. Since the early 1900s, pineapple production has been integral to the island’s economic and agricultural landscapes. Most notably, Maui Land & Pineapple Company— or Maui Pine, for short—ran a lucrative operation there for over 75 years, until they closed their doors in 2007. Maui is also home to a seed bank that has all 37 varieties of pineapple known to the world.
Determined to keep production on the island, former Maui Pine employees bought the assets needed to keep the business intact, but downsized drastically. They were able to maintain a trusted product under a new “local-first” formula, and relaunched in 2010 under the name Maui Gold Pineapple Company.
Sweet with some tang, and bright gold in color, the Maui Gold® pineapple made its public debut in 2005, after 17 years of experimental planting. Maui Gold Pineapple Company’s name celebrates the variety developed by their predecessors, and is the only pineapple it cultivates.
From mom-and-pop restaurants and other small businesses to local households, Maui reaps what it sows: Half of all the Maui Gold pineapple grown is consumed right on the island. Just up the road from the farm, Hali’imaile Distilling Company uses the fruit in their famous Pau Vodka. (As of 2018, Maui Gold Pineapple Company and Hali’imaile Distilling Company operate under the same parent company, The LeVecke Corporation.) Wine lovers can sip sparkling pineapple wine at nearby MauiWine, the island’s only winery, or you can relish in the taste with sweet & spicy pineapple spears from Maui Preserved. For a fully immersive experience, book an excursion into the world of Maui Gold with Maui Pineapple Tours.
Even with its prime growing conditions and farmland, Hawaii imports 85% or more of its food from the mainland and beyond. However, by law, pineapples cannot be imported. And without the presence of big agriculture, this leaves the local market wide open for smaller operations like Maui Gold, and specialized family-run farms.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Enter White Sugarloaf and Meli Kalima pineapples. Alongside Maui Gold, a new generation of farms across the archipelago are putting Hawaiian pineapples back on the map. Small in scale, but mighty in passion, a business of “craft” pineapple is emerging.
The origins aren’t known for sure, but the White Sugarloaf (named after the loaf-like way refined sugar was sold at the time of its discovery) is thought to be a naturally occurring variant of its golden counterpart. The production of this variety has remained within a small circle of growers on the islands, and one such grower can be found on Kauai’s Moloa’a peninsula.
Jude Huber and her husband Paul have spent the better part of two decades growing Kauai Sugarloaf white pineapples on Hawaii’s northernmost island. A small-batch operation of sorts, they grow and handpick over 350,000 Sugarloaf pineapple plants on 38 acres of land. (For reference, Dole’s Lanai plantation had around 16,000 acres.) The Huber family has helped Kauai stake its claim to pineapple fame with a noteworthy fruit and an exclusive dairy- and sugar-free treat, Paulie’s Pineapple Phrosty (it’s 100% Kauai Sugarloaf white pineapples, they promise!).
Another specialized venture has garnered attention on Oahu, too. Hawaiian for “honey cream,” the Meli Kalima variety is grown exclusively by Frankie’s Nursery in Waimanalo, Oahu. While they’ve been operating for over 30 years, Meli Kalima has been on the market for five. Backed by a patent, the sweet-ashoney, pale-as-cream variety is sold crown-less so it cannot be propagated. The patent is currently for sale, though, as the owners are looking to retire. “Our customers say it’s the best pineapple in the world, so someone has to keep growing it!” says Lynn, co-owner of Frankie’s Nursery.
Big agriculture continues to invest elsewhere, which has resulted in loss of jobs on the islands and other economic issues. But while plantations have been deserted, traces of a once-booming industry have been replaced by a new wave of determined farmers with the goal of keeping Hawaii’s pineapple industry as good as gold, and as sweet as sugarloaf.