Many drinkers have a go-to spirit or mixed beverage. The specific brand they choose, though, can have a significant impact on both their pleasure and the communities that produce them. Ocean Organic Vodka on Maui, Hawaii, is trying to shake up the status quo by lessening their environmental footprint while providing high-quality organic spirits from one of Hawaii’s oldest crops: sugarcane.
Traditional sugarcane production involves burning the crop shortly before harvest to remove biomass, like leaves, and make it easier to collect (the stalk, containing the sugar and a high water content, survives the fire). The harvest can be grueling and sugarcane workers often suffer from acute respiratory illness, heart issues, and genetic mutations. Additionally, burn practices can degrade soil quality over time.
Hawaii has a long history of sugarcane production, starting with Polynesian settlers more than 1,000 years ago. Plantations industrialized production but declined due to rising costs and foreign competition. Concurrent with this decline has been growing concern among locals regarding health effects and increased shock and worry from tourists who see mushroom plumes according to local news accounts.
The community has had a multi-decade debate over the future of agriculture on the island, weighing the economic benefits against health concerns. This year marks the culmination of that debate and a significant milestone in sugarcane history in Hawaii as the last major company, HC&S of Maui, wraps up its 144th and final sugarcane harvest. They will pursue a diversified agriculture model, which includes biofuel production, leaving the possibility of future burns.
The Smith Family started Ocean Organic Vodka on Maui to embody both an appreciation for Maui’s natural beauty and strive to bring more eco-conscious and sustainable practices to production. The stated mission of the company is “to create a superior organic, value-added agricultural product from Hawaii that supports the local economy, competes globally based on quality and raises awareness for ocean conservation.”
Ocean’s sustainability practices permeate the entire business, starting with the sugarcane itself. They collected and now grow more than three dozen varieties of Polynesian sugarcane in an attempt to preserve biodiversity and history. Fertilizer combines waste from a neighboring goat farm with leftover cane biomass. Chickens patrol the field to combat pests and provide additional nutrients to the soil while weeds are hand removed. Selective harvesting is employed, in which only mature canes are collected by hand without burning, leaving young shoots to grow until they are ready. A solar-powered facility processes, ferments, distills, and bottles the product. Their beautiful, round, blue glass bottles, modeled after old fishing buoys, are made from recycled glass and all packaging materials are reused or recycled.
Even the bottom line of the business, profit, is partially shared with nonprofit ocean conservation organizations. The result is a product consumers can feel good about drinking, increased revenue to the local economy, and a lower impact on the land while avoiding the adverse health effects of traditional sugarcane production. The drawbacks include higher costs and more labor, which prevents the product’s broader adoption. However, Ocean provides an example of one possible path forward for sustainable agriculture in Hawaii.
To locate the nearest store that carries Ocean Organic Vodka, click here. Although sugarcane burns might be a thing of the past in Hawaii, it is still practiced in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and in countries around the world. To learn more about the Sierra Club’s fight against burning in Florida, click here.