Prior to the incorporation of the plantations, small farmers grew a few hundred acres of cane on their own or leased land, grinding it in small mills they owned. The 500-acre Honokaa Sugar Plantation was founded in 1876 by Seimsen and Marsden. They planted their first crop that year with the help of Hawaiian laborers. That company gave way to the Honokaa Sugar Company, which was chartered on May 8, 1878, and extended mauka (inland/up-slope) from the high cliffs at the coast three miles in towards Mauna Kea. The boundaries were Kahaupu Gulch, on the eastern edge of Honokaa town, and Waipio Valley to the west. As early as 1899, HS Co. cane was grown on 5,500 of 7,567 acres. These fields were irrigated with water diverted from the man-made Upper and Lower Hamakua Ditches. The Lower Hamakua Ditch can still be visited makai of Honokaa on Lehua Street. In 1928, the Honokaa Sugar Plantation and the Pacific Sugar Mill merged into a single company under the name Honokaa Sugar Company. The plantation eventually grew to encompass over 9,000 acres, half of it owned by the company. After consolidation of ownership of the companies by Theo H. Davies, the plantation harvested its last crop and closed down in 1994, signaling a great change for locals and businesses in the orbit of the sugar industry.
There are no harbors along the Hamakua Coast. Honokaa Sugar’s Haina mill was connected to a boat landing cliff-side by an inclined tramway that transported bags of sugar to the warehouse at the landing. Sugar was then loaded directly down the cliff onto the steamer below by means of a wire rope boom and pulley system. Unsafe as it seems by modern standards, people were often transported in the same manner, and accidental deaths were not unknown. In 1919 Honokaa Sugar Co. was able to ship sugar directly to the mainland using this method. Formerly, bagged sugar was sent by inter-island steamer to Honolulu and reloaded onto mainland-bound vessels. Before trucks were available, and roads improved, supplies for the mill and the town were either hauled 40 miles from Hilo by horse drawn cart, or freighted by ship to be unloaded at the landing and hauled uphill.
Around the middle of the 1800s an American Protestant missionary, A.L. Lyons, first brought coffee seeds and saplings to the Hamakua region, and gave them out to those he met during his proselytism in the Islands. By the late 1800s large coffee plantations had taken root around the Hamakua Coast near, Honokaa. In nearby Pohakea, the largest of these coffee plantations totaled more than 1,000 acres. In 1994, when the Hamakua Sugar Company finally closed its doors, there was a renewed interest in coffee cultivation in the region. Production in Hamakua started again in earnest in 2000, when thirteen farmers again began growing coffee there. Today, artisanal coffee is grown around the region and is highly-regarded internationally, generally commanding more than $20 per pound.
In 1881, Australian William Purvis, a botanical collector as well as sugar cane plantation manager, introduced the macadamia nut tree to Hamakua. Commercial production of the new crop started in the 1920’s in the area and elsewhere on the Big Island. By 1950 the Honokaa Sugar Company had 450 acres of macadamia trees, and was the largest mac nut producer in the Territory of Hawai‘i. Today, Hawaiʻi has dropped to the 3rd largest producer, but according to the Hamakua Macadamia Company about 570 growers are still working 17,000 acres to produce 40 million pounds of in-shell nuts, valued at over $30 million annually.
In 1916, the Honokaa Ranch division started with about 2,600 acres of grazing land above the cane fields and 600 head of cattle. Its local paniolo workmen would become a defining part of local culture, as evidenced by the annual "Honokaa Western Week" that celebrates a breed of cowboy not unlike those on the mainland.
Local Hawaiians were the first laborers on Hawaiʻi’s sugar plantations. When there weren't enough to satisfy the growing demand for labor, contracted labor arrangements were made, starting with Chinese. Owing to the discrimination they faced in the American West, a ban was placed on Chinese immigration to the U.S. and it territories, so other sources of inexpensive labor were sought. Beginning with the Portuguese, waves of Japanese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, and Filipinos all headed to the Islands for work, including a few Russians and Spaniards who tended to be brought on as managers or overseers. A contract usually lasted 4 to 6 years, and the laborers and their families lived in plantation “camps” that dotted the countryside, with some bachelors living in boarding houses the likes of which included the Honokaa Hotel Club. The camps were self-sufficient and resources, hours, and pay were tightly controlled by the plantation management. As their contracts expired, members of these ethnic groups either moved back to their home countries, or moved to Hilo, Honokaa, or other “plantation towns” on the coast and began mercantile business, boarding houses bars, restaurants, billiard halls, dance halls and movie theaters. Today, only Honokaa survives as a commercial center. Other towns like Paahau, Kuakini, Ookala, Laupahoehoe, Papaaloa, Ninole and Hakalau have been hollowed out by emigration and no longer have commercial centers. As the largest town between Hilo and Waimea, Honokaa occupied a unique location to supply the coast. The goods and services were often geared to the ethnic population; Japanese stores carried Japanese goods as well as Western merchandise. The names of the stores in Honokaa reflected the diversity of ownership such as the Japanese Hasegawa General Store, Sakata Photography, Yamatsuka General Store, Ikeuchi Hardware, and the Portuguese-owned Ferreira, Souza, Botelho, Andrade, and Paiva buildings.