Sugar Cane is Soooo Thirsty… How Thirsty is It?

Sugar cane is so thirsty that waterfalls are routed to hydrate the fields. An impressive and complex system of irrigation ditches route the water–for miles–over gulches (a plunge between two mountain peaks), around boulders, through lush plant life; and always at the right angle degree for movement. This feat earned the sugar cane plantation on Maui a designation as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Sugar production was Hawaii’s top economic industry until 1959, when commercial flight to the islands became standard and tourism took over. Tourism earns just a tad more money, so I think they’re OK with the shift.

The Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum on Maui has exhibits about the growth and production of sugar, as well as the community life among the workers.

From Seed to 30 Feet Tall in Two Years

Sugar cane sure is an ambitious plant. But the height doesn’t make for tidy fields. Nope, the stalks get gangly and fall into a tangled mess.

Sugar Cane field with tangled plants

Watering the thirsty plants stops for the last 60 days of maturation; it stores more sugar in the cane. Until those final days, it’s watered constantly, requiring 10,000 gallons of water to make one pound of sugar.

Is Sugar Cane Sticky?

No; not while it’s in the “husk.” And the husk reminds me of corn, although corn is much denser than cane. Lifting a cane felt surprisingly light, but I was only holding a portion, while still rooted, so it’s possible it’s a different experience when wielding the full stalk.

There’s a lot of plant surrounding the cane. That contributes to the messiness. It’s not at all like the perfect rows of other crops; although it does start out that way. And all that brush gets burned before harvest, making it easier to collect only the cane. The cane survives the fire because it’s saturated with water.

fields of sugar cane in Hawaii

Processing Sugar

Things happen faster with a bulldozer. After the brush is burned, it clears away the mess. Then a “cane grab” attached to a cable crane lifts sugar cane into the hauler– six tons at a time.

sugar equipment

The grabber, a trencher, and a pulverizer (walk into a bar)

Pulverized and shred, 95% of the sugar is squeezed out of the cane. The remaining 5% is re-purposed to fuel equipment. The cane is boiled, evaporated, and vacuum pressured (just like my daily beauty regimen), yielding a syrup that is both sugar crystals and molasses. These two are separated (by magic/science), and the raw sugar is sent to California to be refined into white and confectioner sugar; and the molasses is sent to the mainland to supplement cattle feed.

There’s a smell to this process–it’s almost like burnt coffee, but only a wee bit less fetid. My hotel reeked of it. Sleep tight!

Sugar Processing Plant in Maui

Sugar Processing Plant in Maui

Sugar Leads to Diversity

When sugar cane was introduced to the islands, the locals weren’t interested in the crop or working its fields. Word got around, and people came from Japan, China, Puerto Rico, Portugal, etc. This is one of the reasons that Hawaii is the most ethnically diverse state.

The workers lived on the plantation together, in circumstances later considered as indentured servants.  That said, they were given housing, food, clothing, community centers. Both the museum and some locals talk fondly of the celebrations and bond among the workers. The museum even offers genealogy tools. What’s the truth? Perhaps a bit of both–brutally hard work but fun with people.


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What’s the worst smelling factory you’ve experienced?
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8 Responses


The worst smelling factory I’ve had the dubious pleasure of experiencing is a pulp mill on a hot, humid day near Jesup, Georgia. P U.


Ah so this explains why I muust drink more than one foo foo alcoholic drink. Its not me that’s thirsty – its the sugar cane. For me, while I do enjoy some beers I don’t prefer the smell of the brewing. Though of course it doesn’t stop me from brew tours


Worst factory smell was the paper mill as we drove into Charleston. Smell the mill and know the trip is almost over. Can’t recall a positive factory smell unless it would be a place making cotton candy!

Really enjoying your Hawaii descriptions. Never had a desire to visit, but you’re changing my mind.

The Fox River Valley of Wisconsin is the home of many paper mille, including Kimberly-Clark, Menasha Papers, Appleton Papers, Fort Howard, etc. There is something sulfuric and disgusting about the smell of some of those mills when the wind is right. To this day, when something smalls bad, my children say, “Eeeeew It smells just like Kaukauna!”

When I was growing up, we used to drive up the New Jersey turnpike from Philadelphia to Brooklyn, NY to visit my grandparents. The oil refineries near Newark smelled horribly and our eyes would sting. My sisters and I used to try to hold our breath. I think that mean, old, job killing EPA has forced them to clean up their act some.

Conversely, the best smelling factory of my youth was the chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The entire town smelled of chocolate.
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Now that you have the rep for being your readers’ personal Google, Paula … I must inquire. What does P.U. stand for?

Nancy – I must confess that I’m only google if i already know the info. But you made me curious. P.U. is unknown for certain, but thought to be an abbreviation of either french or latin.


Earlier in my life (as a child) our farm was next to a farm that raised sugar cane. Once a year we would gather at their place and help turn the cane into syrup. They used a horse walking around a crusher and hand fed stalks to get the juice.

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