Del Monte to End Hawaii Pineapple Production

After 90 years in the islands, Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. (FDP) says it will cease pineapple operations in Hawaii in a little more than two years.

Del Monte said it was no longer economically feasible to grow pineapple in Hawaii because it can be produced for less in other parts of the world.

"It would be cheaper for Del Monte to buy pineapples on the open market than for the company to grow, market and distribute Hawaiian pineapple," the company said in a statement Wednesday.

Del Monte also cited difficulty in obtaining a long-term lease extension with landowner Campbell Estate.

But Campbell Estate Vice President Bert Hatton said Del Monte declined a lease extension at the then-current rent structure in 2001. The estate also offered to sell the pineapple land in three separate proposals, but Del Monte rejected those, Hatton said.

Planting at Del Monte's Kunia plantation on Oahu was set to end Feb. 19 and the current crop will produce fruit through mid-2008, the company said.

Fred Galdones, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, said about the 700 pineapple workers who will lose their jobs. Galdones said he was also concerned with the future of the two remaining pineapple companies in Hawaii, Dole Food Hawaii and Maui Pineapple Co.

"I hope it's not a domino effect like it did with the sugar companies, where one had closed and the others followed suit," he said.

Hawaii's once thriving sugar cane industry is barely a presence now as companies found it cheaper to operate elsewhere.

Tens of thousands of acres of former sugar cane fields on the densely populated island of Oahu, where about 75 percent of the state's 1.3 million population reside, have since been developed into master-planned residential communities and shopping centers.

The islands' red, volcanic soil and year-round sunny weather are ideal to grow pineapple, the top agricultural commodity in Hawaii.

Last year, Hawaii produced 212,000 tons of pineapples worth an estimated $79 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Worldwide, the top pineapple producers are Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, China, India and Costa Rica, according to a USDA report.

"I think that American workers everywhere, literally from Hawaii to Maine to Texas to Michigan, are vulnerable to outsourcing and that's really what this is about," said Hanan Kolko, a New York labor lawyer.

Del Monte said it will work with its employees and union representatives to "reduce the impact of this decision."

"Del Monte is mindful of the company's obligations to its employees and the local community, and is committed to making every reasonable effort to lessen the impact on all individuals involved," the company said in a statement. A company spokeswoman declined further comment.

Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte began pineapple operations in Hawaii in 1916, when the company was called California Packing Corp. Its main competitor is Dole Food Co., which produces pineapples on 3,000 acres it owns in Wahiawa.

"It is our plan to continue growing pineapples on Oahu for the foreseeable future," Dole spokeswoman Marta Maitles said Thursday. She declined to comment on how Del Monte's decision may affect Dole, which will be left as the only major pineapple grower on Oahu. Dole employs 250 unionized workers.