In the early 1900s, Lincoln’s forerunner, a botanist named W.W.G. Moir, journeyed around the Islands gathering local cane varieties and cane lore for the breeding program of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA). Canes from Moir’s collection eventually found their way to botanical collections around the Islands, including Amy Greenwell; Allerton Garden and Limahuli Preserve on Kaua‘i; Kahanu Gardens in Hana and Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in Kahului on Maui; and the Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Gardens on O‘ahu. Retired plant pathologist Susan Schenck still tends to the heirloom collection that Moir founded on O‘ahu. “Originally there probably were sixty to eighty [varieties] that Moir collected,” she says. “Currently I probably have forty or fifty. Some are so beautiful, they’re really ornamental.” But, she notes, “They were chewing canes. They were very soft and could not be milled for sugar.”
In 1932, after years of travel and research, Moir published his findings in Society of Sugarcane Technologists Bulletin No. 7: The Native Hawaiian Canes. Lincoln calls it “the only real piece of literature that’s been produced on the Hawaiian canes. That’s our bible, our guiding document.” But long before Moir published his work on native canes, the organization he was working for, HSPA, had begun replacing them. HSPA’s breeding program created its first hybrid cane in 1905: a one-size-fits-all variety called H-109. H-109’s low juice-to-sugar ratio meant more sugar and fewer gunked-up gears at the mills. It was disease- and drought-resistant. Its cane stalks generally stood up straight instead of sprawling outward as many native varieties did, which meant more stalks packed onto the field. Commercial fields planted with H-109 quickly crowded out subsistence agriculture over vast areas. As the uses of cane shrank from many to one —producing refined crystalline sugar— so did the number of varieties.
“By 1920, 80 percent of the cane grown in the state was this H-109,” says Lincoln. But even it couldn’t last. The breeding program continued to produce new hybrids every ten to twelve years to improve yields and keep up with introduced pests. According to Stephanie Whalen, the breeding program also produced varieties for “twelve different environmental niches,” from sunny Central O‘ahu to rainy Hamakua to dry Ka‘u.
Whalen heads the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC), which is what the HSPA became. In 1996, with the sugar industry collapsing on most islands, HSPA reorganized itself and became the nonprofit HARC and expanded its scope to include a number of other crops. Sugar is still a key player, however: Even today, HARC maintains about two thousand different breeding clones of cane at its research station in Maunawili on O‘ahu, and it continues to produce new cultivars. “Agriculture is no different a business model than anything else. You’ve got to create new things to stay alive,” Whalen says. The Hawaiian varieties, she adds, “are not useful for commercial purposes — at least past commercial purposes.”