Rice production was not a major contributor to Hawaiʻi’s economy until the latter half of the nineteenth century. As whaling declined in importance, greater emphasis was placed on agricultural production, primarily sugar and rice.
It was in 1850 when the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society was formed to develop Hawaiʻi’s agricultural resources that rice made its mark in the Hawaiʻi economy. The group purchased land in the Nuʻuanu Valley and rice seed from China and planted in a former taro patch.
At first the Society offered the rice seed to anyone in Hawaiʻi who wanted to plant it. King Kamehameha IV also offered land grants for cultivation of rice. Because there were no proper milling facilities in Hawaiʻi, it didn’t take off as a viable crop right away.
Then, in 1860, imported rice seed from South Carolina proved very successful and yielded a fair amount of crop. This, combined with the collapse of the taro industry in 1861-1862 (as the Hawaiian population declined, the demand for taro also declined,) added value to the numerous vacant taro patches and a boom in the rice industry.
From 1860 to the 1920s, Rice was raised in the islands of Hawaiʻi, particularly in Kauai and Oʻahu, because of their abundance of rain.
The Hanalei Valley of Kauai led all other single geographic units in the amount of acreage planted in rice. The valley was one of the first areas converted to this use and continued to produce well into the 1960s.
The Commercial Pacific Advertiser noted on October 3, 1861, “Everybody and his wife (including defunct government employees) are into rice – sugar is nowhere and cotton is no longer king. Taro patches are held at fabulous valuations, and among the thoughtful the query is being propounded, where is our taro to come from?”
During the 1860s and 1870s, the production of rice increased substantially. It was consumed domestically by the burgeoning numbers of Chinese brought to the Islands as agricultural laborers.
In 1862, the first rice mill in the Hawaiian Islands was constructed in Honolulu (prior to that it was sent unhulled and uncleaned to be milled in San Francisco.) By 1887 over 13 million pounds of rice were exported.
A particularly important stimulus for the increased demand for rice was the Reciprocity Treaty of 1876. This treaty between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi granted duty-free status to certain items of trade between the two countries, including rice.
Thomas Thrum wrote in 1877 that Kamehameha V and other landowners had “planted a large tract of land in rice (in Moanalua,) and even went so far as to pull up and destroy large patches of growing taro to plant rice.”
In 1899, Hawaiʻi’s rice production had expanded so that it placed third in production of rice behind Louisiana and South Carolina.
Much of this rice acreage was worked initially by Chinese immigrants, who first arrived as contract laborers in 1852. By 1860 this immigrant population totaled 1,200. Chinese immigration continued at a rapid pace until 1884, when the official census estimated the number of Chinese at 18,254.
In 1882 the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act; then, Japanese workers were brought in to take their place. Within only five years the Japanese constituted more than forty-two percent of the plantation work force and one-seventh of the total population.
Ironically, this influx of Japanese immigrants accelerated Hawaiʻi’s decline in rice production. Japanese preferred short grain rice rather than the long grain rice the Chinese were used to eating. So rice began to be imported from California for the Japanese.
California’s success would ultimately mean the end of the rice industry in Hawaiʻi. Furthermore, the hand labor techniques of Hawaiʻi’s Chinese and Japanese rice farmers could not compete with California’s mechanized production technology.
Additional problems with the rice bird and rice borer, as well as the lack of interest on the part of the younger generation to continue rice farming, eventually meant the end of a once prosperous industry.
Attempts to revive rice production by the Agricultural Extension Service of the University of Hawaiʻi were made in 1906 and 1933, primarily in Hanalei.
As a result the acreage planted in rice on the island rose from 759 acres in 1933 to 1,058 in 1934. For areas like Hanalei Valley, such efforts, coupled with the valley’s general remoteness and absence of competing demands for the land, allowed rice cultivation to continue as a regional activity long after it had been abandoned throughout the rest of Hawaiʻi.
Today, there is no trace of the rice fields in Hawaiʻi. However, Hoʻopulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill museum in Hanalei Valley provides a remnant look at the once prospering agricultural venture.
It was built by the Chinese and purchased by the Haraguchi family in 1924. The Haraguchi family has restored the mill three times; after a fire in 1930, then again after Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
The mill ceased operating in 1960 when Kauai’s rice industry collapsed. A nonprofit organization was formed to preserve and interpret the mill, which has been visited by thousands of school children and adults in the past 29 years.