There are more than a few places on the Big Island that defy rental car GPS navigation systems. The verdant, forested mountain slopes above Paauilo, a 1.2-square-mile town on the Hamakua Coast, home to a population of 595, is one such place.
Still, negotiating the weathered bumps of rural Pohakea and Paauilo Mauka Roads has its benefits. Mist-cloaked koa and eucalyptus groves. On cloudless days, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and maybe a peek at the summit of towering Mauna Kea. And about three miles upslope, after turning off island-circling Highway 19, the only commercial vanilla farm in the United States.
Hawaiian Vanilla Co.’s headquarters—with exteriors colored in creamy country-lemon tones, white trim and a deep-green roof—cuts an endearing profile in this bucolic setting. Step inside and you’ll find an airy, sunlit dining room, a large gourmet kitchen and a smallish vanilla gift shop. A short walk down the road are the company’s 20 acres of prized vanilla plants, housed in greenhouses overlooking the Hamakua Coast.
“It’s not a bad place to work,” says Doug Sessions, the farm’s general manager, who does everything from guiding tours to shipping products. He adjusts his baseball cap and motions toward the farm's ocean view—a perk of the job. “I can’t complain.”
Neither can Hawaiian Vanilla Co. owners Jim and Tracy Reddekopp, both Oahu natives, who, in 1998, decided somewhat spontaneously to purchase 5 acres of Paauilo land to start a farm. The couple had zero farming experience and no idea what they would grow on their new farm. But they knew they wanted to be nowhere else in the world.
“We thought if we were going to start a family, we wanted to raise them on a farm,” says Jim, 48. “We loved the Big Island, how slow it was. Everybody was friendly. I thought we were going to grow kids, and that was plenty enough.”
Jim's mother-in-law, an orchid enthusiast, nonetheless suggested they try growing vanilla plants. The plant from which the flavoring is extracted is part of the orchid family. Orchid plants thrive in Hawaii’s tropical climate. A match made in agricultural heaven? Perhaps. But not a match without a lot of botanical knowledge and hard work involved.
A friendship with Tom Kadooka, a Big Island orchid expert who was also the only person Jim found actually growing vanilla in Hawaii, kicked off his education. Over four years, Kadooka schooled Jim on the finer points of raising vanilla orchids in Hawaii, vanilla pollination and drying vanilla pods. To know what it takes to produce a vanilla pod is to know why vanilla is one of the world’s most expensive spices.
A vanilla plant takes several years to achieve its first bloom, and from then on produces just one flower a year. Each flower has to be pollinated within 12 hours of blooming—a task accomplished only by hand-pollination. (The melipona bee, native to Mexico, is the one insect in the world that naturally pollinates the blossom.) If pollination is successful, the flower’s stem transforms over eight to nine months into a single, seed-filled bean pod, which is also harvested by hand.
Kadooka shared his knowledge with Jim until his passing in 2004, at age 83. Hawaiian Vanilla Co.’s acreage in the years since has produced vanilla-pod harvests both plentiful and, at times, in short supply. But the Reddekopps’ patience, persistence, marketing acumen and, most importantly, wonderfully fragrant, intensely flavorful product has put their vanilla in the recipes of a number of top Hawaii chefs, including Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and George Mavrothalassitis.
Over the years, the Reddekopps’ have added farm tours, vanilla tastings, afternoon tea service and a vanilla luncheon to Hawaiian Vanilla Co.’s offerings. The dining room’s luncheon menu, crafted by Tracy Reddekopp, is always creative, alternately featuring everything from vanilla-kissed entrées, soups and sandwiches to scones and a popular vanilla lemonade. Reservations are a must.
The gift shop is stocked with dozens of Hawaiian Vanilla Co. products, including vanilla-infused sunscreen and body scrub, and culinary items such as dressings, chutneys, jellies, honey and actual dried vanilla beans. We've tried Hawaiian Vanilla Co.’s pure vanilla extract in batches of home-baked cookies and in French toast. Warning: you'll want to use it exclusively thereafter.
Jim hopes to add art classes and dinner service to Hawaiian Vanilla Co.’s offerings, continuing his quest to make the farm and the rest of the agriculturally rich Hamakua Coast a culinary destination.
“I have a heart for agriculture, though I don’t know where that came from. And I really feel this region could become like Sonoma,” says Jim. “That we can be this little hub where people can come and visit farms that grow mushrooms, goat cheese, chocolate, vanilla—and actually spend a day in the country. That’s my dream.”
Hawaiian Vanilla Co., 43-2007 Paauilo Mauka Road, Paauilo • (877) 776-1771, hawaiianvanilla.com