Not So Plain Vanilla
How the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, the nation’s first commercial vanilla farm, grows—and struggles with—the pricey spice.
James Reddekopp’s quest to grow vanilla, the seed pod of a delicate climbing orchid, led him to exotic places—Mexico, vanilla’s birthplace, Micronesia and Haiti, as well as the not-so-exotic: New Jersey, home of “some of the latest technology in vanilla research at Rutgers University,” Reddekopp says. In the beginning of his research, he found very little, “so I thought I was on to an incredible idea or it was too hard,” he says.
It was both. Vanilla orchids are propagated by cuttings; it takes a meter-long cutting up to two years to bloom the first celadon-colored vanilla flower. Then, once the blossom opens, the plants need to be hand-pollinated within a four-hour window in order to produce the vanilla bean. Once pollinated, it takes nine months for the orchid to grow a mature, six-inch bean containing thousands of specklike seeds. Next, the bean must be processed, a series of steps over several months involving blanching, sweating, drying and curing, and which develops the heady fragrance of vanilla. It is because of this labor that vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron.
Back on Hawai‘i Island, Reddekopp heard about local vanilla research involving the late Tom Kadooka. He apprenticed with the Kona nurseryman and leased an abandoned vanilla field in South Kona, reviving the vanilla and using cuttings from those plants to start his own farm on the Hāmākua coast.
Hawaiian Vanilla Company opened in 1998 as the nation’s first commercial vanilla farm. Today, James and his wife Teresa have 3,000 plants growing under greenhouse cover in raised beds to produce about 500 pounds of beans annually. Hawaiian Vanilla is on the verge of expanding to a second growing location nearby and is pursuing organic certification.
In addition to the fussiness of producing vanilla, fusarium, a pathogen known by growers worldwide as the “scourge of vanilla,” plagues the plant. It penetrates the roots and causes the plant to decline and die. O‘ahu’s Kahuku Farms grew vanilla successfully for five years before the fungus started attacking their vanilla. “We did our research and followed best practices, growing vanilla first in an isolated location, but we got fusarium,” says Kylie Matsuda, Kahuku Farm’s managing director. A new batch of vanilla cuttings were subsequently planted in at a different location, but they succumbed to the disease also.
“Fusarium has brought me to my knees many times,” says Reddekopp, who says the current health of the farm has come with a learning curve. He’s found that with his raised-bed planting structure, it’s easier for him to remove diseased plants and disinfect before damage spreads. Still, even with farm improvements over the years, “we’ve had years of good harvest and years of none,” says Reddekopp. “We’ve had years when we’ve relied on the harvest of others to see us through. But anything worthwhile takes time.”