WRITTEN BY FERN GAVELEK
Spring, the season of blossoms, is upon us. In the midst of all the eye-catching, sweet-smelling flowers we encounter each spring, there is one modest blossom that humans must pay particular attention to: that of the vanilla orchid. Although lacking in fragrance and quite plain looking by orchid-standards, these understated flowers will ultimately produce the coveted vanilla beans that go on to flavor so many our favorite sweet and savory dishes. Without the help of human pollinators, however, the vanilla bean would all but disappear from the world market.
With its multiple uses and labor-intensive production, vanilla is second only to saffron as the costliest spice.
Native to Central America, vanilla is thought to have originated in Meso-America. The word vanilla derives from the Spanish word vaina, meaning sheath or pod, and translates as “little pod.” In the tropical Mexican climate, the plant is naturally pollinated by the local Melipona bee. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is credited with bringing vanilla to Europe in the early 1500s and it was used as a flavoring for chocolate.
According to www.worldatlas.com, Mexico was the world’s leading vanilla supplier until the middle of the 19th century. Today, Indonesia and Madagascar offer the lion’s share of the spice, a combined total of 6,300 tons last year, with Mexico ranked third at 463 tons. Other leading vanilla countries include Papua New Guinea, China, Turkey, Tonga and Uganda.
An orchid— Vanilla planifolia grows outdoors up to 25 degrees north or south of the equator. Hawai‘i is the only state where vanilla is commercially cultivated. A fleshy vine with aerial roots, vanilla likes to climb and in nature, reaches into the canopy of trees. Flowers are a pale, yellowish green and last about a day.
According to “Vanilla-The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance” by Patricia Rain, vanilla production came to Hawai‘i sometime after it was ceded to the U.S. in the late 1800s. She writes, “A few growers took up vanilla farming in the Hawaiian Islands, but over time the vanilla plantations here slowly faded away.”
Hawai’i Island’s Hawaiian Vanilla Company is credited as the nation’s first company to grow and sell vanilla beans, pure extract and vanilla-related products. Founded by Jim Reddekopp and his wife Tracy in 1998, the couple was encouraged by Tracy’s mother-in-law, an orchid enthusiast, to grow vanilla. Unsuccessfully, Jim searched online for “how-to” information. He travelled to Mexico, vanilla’s birthplace, and Rutgers University to see the latest vanilla research. Then he heard about research involving a Kona nurseryman, the late Tom Kadooka.
At that time, Kadooka was working with a perfume company selling plants and took Jim as an apprentice. The men leased and cared for an abandoned vanilla field with 300 plants in South Kona. As vanilla is propagated by plant cuttings because a lack of seed protein makes natural germination difficult, Jim made healthy cuttings from the patch to start his farm on the Hamakua Coast.
Considered by many as the catalyst for Hawai‘i’s vanilla industry, Tom Kadooka was also one of the pioneers of Hawai’i Island’s floriculture industry. He hybridized orchids and with his new cultivars, put Kona on the orchid collector’s map. His “Miss Joaquim” vanda blossoms adorned dinner plates and cocktails served up and down the Kona-Kohala Coasts. Until his death in 2004, Mr. Kadooka generously shared his vanilla expertise with other prospective growers and orchid hobbyists. Over the years, several statewide vanilla growers relied on Tom’s expert advice, which he learned by trial and error in his Kainaliu nursery.
One of those growers is Guy Cellier, owner of The Vanillerie in Keahole-Kona. The Vanillerie sells its cured beans, makes vanilla extract on site and also offers make-your-own extract kits. The farm’s vanilla will be used in a line of infused body products and candles to be sold online and at the on-site Vanilla Shop, opening this spring.
Meaning “vanilla plantation” in French, The Vanillerie planted its first vanilla in 2009. Prior to that, the farm provided the eucalyptus stock for the Hamakua Coast and grew native trees, like koa and sandalwood, for Kamehameha Schools.
“We got our start in vanilla with materials and good advice from Tom Kadooka, who in my opinion, is the godfather of Hawai‘i vanilla,” shared Cellier. “We went to his nursery several times and he walked us through the growing and pollination process while providing us with cuttings from his stock.”
After learning how vanilla likes to climb, Cellier and his team devised a climbing column system called tutors, which enables plants to grow up to 15 feet high. Orchids were planted in a mix of macadamia nut shells and crushed lava rock and propagated under shade cloth.
Farm manager JR Pataray is responsible for growing and pollinating the orchids. To get to the tall blossoms, Pataray relies on stilts. Plants bloom once a year and the delicate blossom is viable about four hours for pollination. It takes about nine months for the pod or bean to mature.
Once ripe, Cellier does all the processing, a lengthy process involving repeated, timed intervals of sweating and sun-drying of the beans, followed by storage in a humidity controlled room for three months. “The idea is to slowly reduce the bean’s moisture content to 25-30 percent,” details Cellier, who adds the trick to the labor-intensive process “is to cure the vanilla without drying it out.”
The Vanillerie cultivates 1,000 plants in shade houses and has added 500 vines to grow under fast-growing jatropha trees; it planted the trees from seeds two years ago and they are already 10 feet tall. “The trees are easy to manage and their canopy protects the vines from the sun,” details Cellier, who thinks treegrown vanilla is the farm’s future. “The vanilla seems happy; it’s how it grows in the wild.”
“Last year we had about 15,000 beans which is a lot to us as each one was pollinated, picked and processed by hand,” he smiles.
The Vanillerie is sharing its operation during hour-long tours starting this spring with sampling. Book a time slot at www.thevanillerie. com.
NEU MANA HUI FARM
Offering vanilla beans and extract using Hawai‘i sourced organic alcohol, the 10-acre Neu Mana Hui Farm is located between Anahola and Kilauea on Kaua‘i. Cashews are the main crop of Scott and Linda Neuman (see cashew coverage in this issue), and the couple also grows limes. The three farm commodities are used to make a variety of products, including refreshing popsicles, and all are sold seasonally on Tuesdays at the Waipa Market in Hanalei.
The Neumans planted their vanilla in 2004 after doing research. “I talked to a gentleman on Hawai’i Island and he got me excited; so I picked up a few plants and then increased my inventory by making cuttings,” recalls co-owner Linda Neuman.
The couple propagates about 50 vanilla plants in a covered greenhouse. Linda emphasizes that “keeping the environment stable” is key as the plants can be sensitive to change. A past mishap with greenhouse covering resulted in decreased flower production. “When you’re small and something like that happens, it’s a big deal.”
A nurse by trade, Linda learned how to pollinate from the internet. “It’s like putting in an IV,” she explains. “The more you do it, the better you become.”
She describes the process: “You lift the flower’s lip and hold it up with your thumb and use a tool like a toothpick to remove the pollen and carefully place it where it needs to go. Then you gently close the lip so there’s proper contact.”
Even though pollination requires exact timing and expertise, Linda enjoys it, sharing that “it’s an interaction with a plant to create something.”
Linda says their vanilla effort is “small batch and handcrafted.” Yield is currently between 70-100 beans annually. Extract is more popular at the market as it’s more familiar to the mainstream consumer than whole, cured beans. While Neu Mana Hui doesn’t offer tours, Linda takes vanilla education on the road.
“I like to teach people at the weekly market about vanilla production; I’m here to show the love,” she notes. Using photos and a display board, Linda shares her vanilla experience with others while selling their farm products. “We aren’t competing with the big guys, we’re just doing our passion and growing what works for us.”
Keep up with the farm on facebook, www.facebook.com/Neu-ManaHuiFarm/
MANA‘E GROWN FARM
Located on the east end of Moloka‘i, Mana’e Grown Farm grows vanilla and a host of fruits to concoct vanilla-infused products. The farm’s sole owner, Patty McCartney, considers herself “a bit of a food scientist,” as she makes vanilla extract using kosher-grade vegetable glycerin, rather than alcohol, as a base. The result is an extract with a sweeter taste and the vanilla can readily be used to enhance tea and coffee.
Vanilla farming started 14 years ago at Mana’e, though everything initially went wrong. Patty’s plants had viruses and she struggled with them for two years. She got a license to import cuttings from India and when they came she was told the documentation wasn’t up to snuff so the plants were destroyed. Then she contacted Tom’s children, Janice Uchida and Chris Kadooka, at the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) for help. The brother and sister came to Moloka‘i and did a community demonstration of growing and pollinating vanilla and provided Patty with 100 starter cuttings.
“I got my first beans three years later after planting their starts,” shared Patty. “Last year I had over 1,000 beans.”
Janice Uchida, Ph.D., associate plant pathologist at UH’s CTAHR, says Patty took vanilla growing seriously. Dr. Uchida has been studying the potential pathogens (bacterium and viruses) that cause disease in vanilla plants at U.H. Manoa and authored the 2011 report, “Farm and Forestry Production and Marketing Profile for Vanilla.”
“My work was an effort to foster vanilla growing in Hawai‘i as many people have had a hard time,” shares Janice. She recommends growers “start small, keep everything clean and don’t plant orchids with vanilla—they carry pathogens that can harm the vanilla.”
Pathogens were a problem for vanilla grown at O‘ahu’s Kahuku Farms, which offers a host of fruit and veggies and uses vanilla beans in products served at the Farm Café. According Kahuku’s Kylie Matsuda, the farm’s vanilla was devastated by a virus— twice. “The problem was transferred by spores and we had to take everything out,” she shared. “We replanted new plants in another area and it happened again, so we gave up. Now we’re using the vanilla we have left.”
Patty feels handling disease is a challenge, along with pests and ag theft. She is moving her greenhouse to a more protected area so she can better manage “who comes in and out of it.”
“I’m concerned with introduction of diseases from people picking and cutting unsupervised,” she shares. “I’m taking measures to reduce my risk—this is a living for me.”
Find Mane‘a Grown Farm vanilla beans, extract and vanilla-infused Molokai honey, organic coconut oil and fruit rollups at the Saturday farmers market in Kaunakakai and at the online Sustainable Molokai Mobile Market: www.sustainablemolokai.org. Follow the farm at www.facebook.com/molokaihawaiivanilla
MAUI ISLAND VANILLA
About 100 vanilla plants are cultivated under gliricidia trees at Maui Island Vanilla Farm in the Haiku area. An orchid hobbyist got the patch started and taught his landscaper, who goes by O‘shen, how to care for the vines and pollinate the flowers. Cuttings start out in the nursery before being planted directly under the nitrogen- fixing gliricidias, which provide an umbrella of shade.
O‘shen says drying vanilla is the hardest task of bean production on the North Shore of Maui, where weather is unpredictable. “You have to be vigilant as you can’t set the beans out in the sun and leave for the day as it might rain,” he explains.
The farm, which also grows cacao between the rows of vanilla, offers two-hour Food of the Gods tours twice weekly to share the ins and outs of chocolate and vanilla. Find info at www.mauichocolatetour. com
While vanilla will always be in demand, the future of Hawai‘i’s vanilla industry is dependent on the drive of pioneering growers and their successes. Dr. Uchida says more vanilla work needs to be done but there is no funding and to get funding, there has to be a “grower base to service.” She knows of no organized group of growers needing help.
HOW-TO VANILLA PRODUCTION RESOURCES
“Farm and Forestry Production and Marketing Profile for Vanilla” is published via the printed book, “Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforesty,” available for purchase at www.specialtycrops.info, along with free download of the book’s 32 chapters, which covers that many different crops.
Guy Cellier recommends “The Vanilla Handbook” by Piero Bianchessi, www.venuivanilla.com
Contact Dr. Janice Uchida at email@example.com