Enter the entrepreneurs. Robert Dawson came to O‘ahu four years ago with a background in information technology, not agriculture. But he was after a business opportunity tied to the Islands, and he started looking for one in the decline of the sugar industry. He first considered the idea of cane as biofuel, but when he crunched the numbers he didn’t like what he saw. Then he started looking at traditional Hawaiian cane varieties.
“They express Hawai‘i in, I think, a unique way,” he says, “and there’s an opportunity to do a lot, from medicine, scrubs, cosmetics, beverages—there’s any number of products you can make, and there are uses for the bagasse [the residue left after sugar is extracted], too.” That waxy coating that helps cane stalks control water loss, for example? Dawson believes it could be used to make surfboard wax.
For the past two years, with the help of Lincoln, HARC and various botanical gardens, he’s been collecting native cane varieties for farmland he’s leased in Central O‘ahu. He started with manulele, the legendary love cane, and thus was born the Manulele Cane Company. Dawson plans to reveal his product line this year; he’s also working with HARC to create a reserve where he hopes to plant all of the known Hawaiian cane varieties.
Back on the Big Island, John Caverly and Jackie Prell are already underway with their product line. With just seventeen acres, an heirloom cultivar and a little Hilo restaurant, the two farmers are reviving the island’s cane-growing tradition. About thirty-five years ago a Hawaiian kupuna (elder) named Poli Alani gave Caverly a plump, yellow, almost bamboo-like ko; it was, Alani told Caverly, known for its healing properties. When Caverly and Prell acquired some former sugar plantation land on the North Hilo coast five years ago, they planted the cane there. The land had been severely depleted by decades of commercial cane production, but the pair, who between them have five decades of organic farming experience, replenished and revitalized the soil with Korean natural farming techniques that use organic additives and naturally occurring bacteria and fungi.
The cane juice they’re now selling, Organic Hawaiian Cane Rush, is equally as nourishing for the human body, says Prell: “It’s full of complex carbohydrates. It’s a very ancient food, something your body easily assimilates.” The pair has come up with a variety of flavors by adding organic ingredients to the cane juice. There’s Ginger Twist, for instance, and Liliko‘i and a drink called Hot Kiss, made with ginger, turmeric, pepper and lime. They began marketing their juices three years ago, and last August opened the Sweet Cane Café on Kilauea Avenue in Hilo.
Aside from its nutritional value, the juice has another quality for some: nostalgia. “People come in and talk about how they used to chew cane as a kid,” says Prell, “or work in the cane fields and the cane factories and drink the juice as it was pressed back then.”