Could Hemp Be The New Sugar on Maui?

Jan 13, 2016

Six-week-old hemp plants from last year's Waimanalo research project on industrial hemp.
Credit Rep. Cynthia Thielen

It’s been a big week for agriculture in the state: the island’s last sugar plantation announced plans to close this year. But one state lawmaker sees an opportunity for a different kind of crop. HPR’s Molly Solomon explains.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen proudly displays dried hemp stalks from last year's hemp research project in her office at the state capital.
Credit Molly Solomon

In the far corner of Cynthia Thielen’s office are a dozen dried plant stalks, standing close to 10 feet tall. The plants are dried hemp, harvested from last year’s research project in Waimānalo. The state representative has been a longtime advocate for industrial hemp in the islands. “The crop itself does not use that much water, doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides,” explains Thielen. “It can grow very quickly to 12 to 15 feet in height within 12 weeks.”

Thielen predicts with Hawai‘i’s warm climate, the state could get up to three crops a year. She says, thanks to the federal Agriculture Act of 2014, it’s legal for universities and state agricultural departments to conduct industrial hemp research. That paved the way for last year’s Waimānalo project, which found that subtropical hemp varieties successfully grow in Hawai‘i. Thielen says this could lead to a number of potential industries. “There are 25,000 uses and products for the industrial hemp plant. Things that work for Hawai‘i are the animal forage, chicken feed, hemp seed in bulk for sale,” said Thielen. “I don’t know of any market now that does not have hemp products. But they’re all shipped in, so why not be growing those here.”

Hemp comes from the same family as marijuana— but Thielen says the comparison to pakalolo is a misconception. One she herself used to have. “My son came to me 20 years ago when the sugar plantations began to shut down. And Peter said, ‘Mom, why aren’t we replacing sugar with industrial hemp?’” Thielen said initially she considered hemp a drug and told her son farming it was illegal. “And he said, ‘Mom, why don’t you learn about it.’”

Credit Rep. Cynthia Thielen

And that’s exactly what she did. What she discovered was a potential agricultural boon for the state. And with the recent closure of HC&S, it’s an industry that could expand to Maui. “The timing is perfect,” said Thielen. “We could save some jobs by moving quickly.”

Alexander & Baldwin says it’s considering the move from sugar to hemp. In a statement, HC&S General Manager Rick Volner said “it is unclear under what conditions the Federal and State laws allow the cultivation of industrial hemp, but we are pursuing legal interpretations. Once we are assured the activity is legal, we stand ready to begin trial plantings at HC&S.”

If A&B decides to move forward, hemp production on Maui could begin as soon as the state Department of Agriculture transfers the license.