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Small Farms Sprout in Hawaii's Fields of Dreams

Plantation workers-turned-entrepreneurs step in where sugar and pineapple failed.

In the shade of a maroon pickup truck on Oahu's North Shore, Federico Dicion and Ben Ramos pick raw peanuts from masses of vines with latex-gloved hands. The labor is grinding, and, even before 10 a.m., the heat is intense. But the men are in good spirits: They're glad to be getting down to work.

Only a few years ago, fields of green sugar cane waved in the steady trade winds here. But, in 1996, the Waialua Sugar Plantation closed, and the jobs of Mr. Dicion, Mr. Ramos, and hundreds of other plantation workers went with it.

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Such a story has played out countless times across Hawaii over the past 20 years as sugar and pineapple plantations - long the pillars of the state's economy -have withered under international competition.

Yet today, some of those fallow fields are planted with new seeds of hope, sown by former sugar workers like Dicion and Ramos, who have gone into business as small farmers.

The unusual experiment is part of an effort to reinvent a portion of Hawaiian agriculture. And with farmers nationwide struggling with low prices for their crops and bad weather, it's an experiment that could hold lessons for the mainland.

Here on the North Shore, it's helping former plantation workers get by. For decades, plantations have been a part of the islands' culture, acting as a magnet for the Asian immigrants that today make up a significant part of the state's population.

But the plantations' grip on Hawaii has loosened as foreign companies edge into the market.

Hawaii's sugar production has plummeted from 1.2 million tons in 1966 to less than 500,000 in 1995. The sugar jobs likewise have declined from 5,570 statewide in 1966 to well under 2,000 today.

While urbanization has claimed some of the fields once filled with cane and pineapple, much of the land has lain dormant. In plantation communities like Waialua, former sugar workers have struggled to survive - especially the older ones.

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Workers adapt

Many, too, are ethnic Filipinos for whom English is a second language. This combination has made landing a decent job in Hawaii's already tight job market difficult. "They needed basic skills - reading, writing, public speaking," says Joanne Kealoha, director of social services for the sugar workers' trade union.

But what many of them did have was familiarity with and fondness for the land. While some gained employment with a newly formed division of Dole Foods, and others got jobs in food or janitorial services, a handful decided to try farming.

The creation of the Waialua Farmers Cooperative played a crucial role in their choice. A nonprofit organization funded in part by a federal grant, the Waialua co-op opened in 1996 and took on about 60 members.

Included in this group are 30 full-time farmers and about 30 former sugar workers who hold jobs with Dole - which owned the Waialua Sugar Plantation before it closed - but want to earn extra money. They also want a cushion in case they lose those jobs, too.

In Waialua, the federal aid pays for field-preparation work - plowing, laying water lines, and other basic steps - as well as agricultural expenses such as fertilizer and pesticides. So far, the new farmers have leased small plots of five acres or less from Dole at favorable rates on land around Waialua.

Going from sugar worker to small farmer is no easy jump. Dicion was a heavy-equipment operator and Ramos was an electrician. Both are struggling to adjust to their new line of work.

"You have to come early in the morning, keep up with the weeds, and water the plants," says Dicion. "When you harvest, it's hard to sell it."

Planning ahead

Others note different challenges. "Working for somebody is real different than working for yourself," says another farmer, Al Medrano, who is the treasurer of the farmers' cooperative. "I have to think of everything, plan ahead, and coordinate from seed to market. It's not like you can just throw a seed in the ground and get a good crop."

Mr. Medrano has studied soil science and integrated pest management to aid his farm efforts. But his full-time job at Dole leaves few hours in the day to be an entrepreneur.

"The bottom line: It's hard work and you've got to love it," says Medrano.

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