Peruvian vanilla grower Ashley Britton has launched a project to bring vanilla production to the Peruvian Amazon to benefit the indigenous Awajun people.
Vanilla pompona has been wildcrafted in this part of the Amazon for a long time for local use, but with global demand for real vanilla growing, this is a good time to establish vanilla pompona as an export product. The region suffered a setback in its ability to provide a cash income when the cacao was rejected for too high a cadmium content. Ashley hopes that vanilla, specifically vanilla extract, can supplant the lost cacao income.
A Kistarter Campaign is Launched
Ashley has started a Kickstarter campaign, The Amazon Vanilla Project in order to raise funds for a small production facility and to provide education on how to grow and produce vanilla for making into extract. The extract would then become an export product.
I encourage you to take a look at the campaign, if successful, it would be a good opportunity establish a sustainable agricultural product for the region, giving local people an incentive to protect the forest.
A couple of months ago, I received an email from a a fellow vanilla grower in Peru named Ashley Britton. We have been exchanging knowledge and experiences since then, and it has expanded my thinking about what vanilla is and how it can be grown.
Ashley is growing vanilla in the mountainous rain forest region of San Martín in Northern Peru. In that area, the vanilla orchid that is found growing wild is vanilla pompona, a species of vanilla that ranges from southern Mexico through northern South America. That represents roughly the same range as vanilla planifolia, the main species for agriculture, which we grow here on Kauai. San Martín is known for its orchids, and they are featured in the tourism of the area as well as providing a local agricultural product.
Pompona vanilla was the first vanilla to be recorded by westerners and exported as a flavoring. It was grown commercially, but was eventually supplanted with vanilla planifolia because the latter got better yields in a plantation setting. Pompona vanilla remains a widely used flavoring in the regions where it grows naturally: Peru and parts of southern Mexico. These days, it is almost completely unknown outside of these areas.
Helping the Awajún
Ashley is exploring the possibility that pompona vanilla could be a good cash crop for the indigenous Awajún people, who live in the region. They had been bringing in currency with cacao, but they recently suffered a setback with this crop due to their cacao getting rejected for too high a cadmium content (the cadmium is present in trace amounts in the soil, and cacao tends to concentrate it in its seeds).
Pompona vanilla can be wildcrafted, and so it presents an opportunity to engage in a sustainable form of low-impact agriculture. Even cultivated vanilla tends to take up little space, tolerant of shade (so you don’t have to cut down lots of trees to plant it), and does not deplete soil fertility.
There are several obstacles to developing pompona vanilla as a agricultural export, but I think the first step will be in introducing its distinctive flavor and aroma to the boutique vanilla market. Once that happens, an appreciation of it will create a demand.
There is also the possibility of exploiting the use of pure vanillin crystals, of which pompona is a good source, for use in perfumery and medicinal products.
Ashley has set up a Kickstarter for the Vanilla Pompona Project, it is about to expire, but on that page you can get a good idea of what he is planning there. There is also the Vanilla Pompona website with more pictures and info, and eventually online sales.
What is Pompona Vanilla Like?
I received my package of pompona vanilla yesterday, and it is truly amazing. When I opened the package, the beans were unexpectedly large and fat. Each one weighs about 15 grams: compare that to our own beans at about 5 grams each! They have the familiar shiny, black (very dark brown) wrinkly surface, and have the same dried-fruit suppleness of a well-cured vanilla bean.
The fragrance is certainly like vanilla, but it has its own characteristics: smoky, sweet notes along with the familiar mellowing fragrance that makes vanilla special. I will have more to report on this later, I plan to make an extract and try the beans in my own cooking to see what it’s like in that context.
I am offering pompona vanilla for sale in my online shop, so you’ll have an opportunity to try it for yourself. It seems like it could be the wild, untamed ancestor to the vanilla we are so familiar with.
The beans we harvested late last winter have now cured and aged enough to be sold! There will only be limited quantities at first, as beans that were harvested later in the season are not done aging yet.
A Small-ish Harvest this Year
For probably several reasons, flower and fruit set last spring (2018) was not as strong as the year before. I don’t know if this experience was shared by other vanilla farmers, but we certainly had a lot of rain last spring. The current theory is that rain during the pollinating season can affect pollination rates.
Anyway, this year we are going to have something like 2/3 the amount of beans we had last year. And with less available stock, prices will inch up slightly. An ounce of grade A beans is now going to be $35, up from $33 last year.
Even with that, we still offer a really good price for Hawaiian vanilla beans compared to other growers in the state. We are a bit of an outlier in that we sell our beans by the ounce (instead of by the bean). This is because we want to be a supplier of vanilla to people who really want to use the beans, they are not just a souvenir.
Lisa and I had an incredible day of pollinating yesterday! We’re pretty sure we’ve never had so many flowers going off before. She and I pollinated 682 flowers, taking us nearly 2 hours to complete the day’s pollination.
Vanilla Flowering Variability
The number of flowers we get each year varies a lot. Like any farmer, we’ve got theories and some experience to explain the variability in the flowering of the vines.
The 2017 flowering season was big: we had many days of over 100 flowers getting pollinated, and several that approached yesterday’s totals.
The 2018 flowering season (the beans from which we are curing now) was much smaller, and at this point it looks like the crop will be a bit more than half of what we got the previous year.
The winter and spring of 2018 was stormy and wet, and the lead theory is that the cloudy, wet weather not only suppressed budding and flowering, but also affected pollination rates. We saw a lot of failed pollination that year and it’s possible the constant wetness may have interfered with what is normally a pretty sure-fire operation (90% success is typical).
This Year’s Differences
This winter/spring is by contrast much drier and sunnier, but there are other factors in play this year that may have increased the number of flowers we got.
First, this year we have Freddy, a new helper on the land, who has a knowledge of Korean Natural Farming (among many other things). He has been applying compost teas and other preparations, and the effect on everything we are growing here has been profound. Freddy is our new secret weapon, a man who is passionate about plants and hot sauce. He fits right in.
Second, I learned that vanilla farmers will often do a major prune of the new growing tips just before the first buds appear in order to stimulate bud growth. It’s not uncommon to apply a little stress to some plants to encourage flowering. It’s maybe a little voodoo, but I tried it and I certainly can’t say it hurt the production of flower buds!
So, it looks like we are in for a big year for the 2020 harvest!
Went out to the vanillery and was greeted with the sight of ripening beans! You get used to the beans growing for months, then all of a sudden…they’re turning.
This year seems a bit earlier than usual, but that could have been expected since the 2018 flowering season also started early. The flowering season in Hawaii starts in January and extends through June. April and May are the peak normally, but trips to the vanillery every morning need to happen for a full 6 months!
Picking the Ripe Beans
When the beans ripen they need to be picked right away because they develop quickly once the yellowing starts. We search the vanillery for ripened beans every 3 days or so to get the beans at the peak of ripeness.
Like most fruit, the sugar content starts to go up rapidly in the final stages of ripening. This sugar is in the form of glucovanillins that are the precursor to vanillin and related aromatics. Developing these aromatics is the most important goal in producing vanilla, so letting the sugars fully develop is critical.
We try to pick the beans when they are fully ripe, but not opened at the tip. As the beans ripen, they begin to split open to eventually release their seeds. The beans that open are still good from a fragrance and flavor standpoint, but cannot be sold as grade A or grade B as they tend to dry out too much and don’t meet the aesthetic standard of a graded bean. Ungraded beans are used to make our own vanilla extract. These in the picture are perfect, however, and will probably yield grade A beans after curing.
It’s finally time to start selling our 2018 vanilla harvest! I’m putting together the retail packages today and soon we’ll have them in the store to sell. I’m pretty excited about the vanilla we have to offer this year, it is without question the best quality vanilla we have ever produced.
This year, we will be selling the beans two ways: First, for the best, largest, and most beautiful beans, in small priced-by-the-bean packages of 2. We’ll also be selling our grade A and grade B beans by the ounce, so even if there are a few smaller beans in there, you’ll know you’re getting all the vanilla you’re paying for. The quality is just excellent either way.
If you’re a wholesale customer for whole vanilla, let me know, and I’ll get a bulk price sheet out to you.
As the beans complete their curing, they need to be inspected, sorted, and packaged for long-term storage. We’ve been doing this for 2 months now, and some of the earliest beans to go into storage are ready for sale or to be made into one of our vanilla products, such as extract or syrup.
The beans are initially sorted into three groups: Grade A, Grade B and Extract. This is according to moisture content and appearance. They are then vacuum-packed and will be aged in that state for 1–6 months.
This year’s harvest is our first big harvest and we’re not quite sure how it’s all going to get marketed. Of course there will be online retail sales, and perhaps a couple of shops on the island will carry our vanilla products.
We are engaging our contacts in the culinary world, too. We’re interested to know how the quality of our beans measures up with people who know vanilla…and of course, we will be selling wholesale to professionals who are looking for artisanal Hawaiian vanilla.
I see a lot of these guys in the vanillery. It must be a great environment for them, a million places to hide and hunt, with convenient walkways so you never have to touch the ground. Mo’o is the Hawaiian word for lizard or reptile…it gets a lot of use since geckos are so common here.
Mostly the ones I see in the vanillery are the green anoles. They look like tiny dragons, and they have a lot of personality…certainly when compared to a gecko! Their typical green color matches the vanilla foliage perfectly. They can change color, so they’re often referred to as “chameleons” and though they do have eyelids that are a bit like them, they aren’t chameleons.
I came across this one, standing out quite obviously because he was a very dark brown color. He was looking at me defiantly, so I snapped a few shots. Later he showed me his impressive dewlap. I think he was trying to scare me.
This other guy is a less common sight in the vanillery, the gold dust day gecko blends in pretty good, despite some stunning color and overall bejeweled effect. (we jokingly call them “gay deckos”) These ones have been slowly taking over from the typical little brown geckos we’ve always had. I’m pretty sure these day geckos are more aggressive and so have been edging out the original population…seems like we see more and more of them every year. For some reason the vanillery is not a usual place to see them. These guys love fruit, so instead we see them in the bananas and where we bring in our fruit from the yard.
We are at the peak of the harvest season, and during this time, we are harvesting about a hundred beans out of the vanillery every two to three days. Choosing which beans to take requires some pretty sharp observation: the color change can be hard to see in the shady tangle of vines. The beans were pollinated almost a year ago, and a lot of vine growth has taken place since then, burying many of the brooms deep within the growth. In the dim light, it’s easy to mistake the gentle lightening that takes place as the bean matures for the clear signal of true ripeness.
Choosing the moment to harvest any one bean is a bit of a game of brinksmanship. We want the bean to be at the absolute peak of ripeness, but if you miss it or wait too long, the bean begins to split open, preparing to release it’s seeds. At that point, the vanilla pod cannot be sold as a whole bean, although it is still good for making extract. We’re looking for a strong orange-yellow color at the tip of the bean, along with a hint of the split beginning to form.
Oh, and watch out for the sap! Like many tropical plants, vanilla employs a chemical defense against foraging animals. This is due the presence of calcium oxilate crystals, which are small and sharp enough to get into the pores of your skin, causing minor but sometimes pretty painful irritation. During harvest, we’re careful not to touch the sap or get it on the skin. When handling freshly-harvested pods, latex gloves are used, as the sap is hard to avoid once the pods get into the harvest box.
I received the vanilla today and was so blown away by the fragrance when I opened the shipping envelope! I can’t wait to open the actual package at work tomorrow. The beans are the largest and most beautiful I have ever seen!!!
The Grade B Hawaiian vanilla beans are very nice. The beans are a good size, moist and have an oily shine. The aroma was very strong and sweet & reminded me of vanilla caramels. These vanilla beans are excellent quality.