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The Amazon Vanilla Project

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.

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Pompona Vanilla from Peru

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.

The beans are huge and meaty

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.

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2019 Season Vanilla Beans are now Available

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.

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We’re in Peak Vanilla Flowering for the 2019 Season

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.

This sea­son is look­ing to be our biggest yet with every col­umn of vines in the vanillery just bristling with flow­ers.

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!

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2019 Harvest Season Begins!

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!

Perfectly ripe: these will be picked today!

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.

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The 2018 Vanilla Harvest is Ready for Sale

Putting the retail packs togeth­er

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.

Visit our Shop to see our currently available vanilla products.

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Sorting the Cured Beans

The beans are ini­tial­ly sort­ed into 3 groups.

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.

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Mo’o in the Vanillery

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.

Back off, this is my vine!

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.

The usu­al­ly very shy gold dust day gecko
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Ripe Green Vanilla Pods

The beans are indi­vid­u­al­ly picked as they ripen.

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.

A pas­sel of ripe beans, these will become Grade A beans when cured and aged.

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.