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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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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.

 

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2018 Harvest Season Begins!

a vanil­la “broom”

This is the first year we are get­ting a full har­vest out of the vanillery. It’s been a good year, growth-wise, maybe even too good. The vines are grow­ing so thick­ly now, it’s hard to see the beans for har­vest­ing.

This har­vest sea­son actu­al­ly began on January 3, we missed a few ear­ly ones, but on that day I har­vest­ed 3 dozen beans. It seems to be com­ing in much ear­li­er this year. Last year’s first har­vest was in February some­time. I can only guess that the onset of the har­vest sea­son moves around a lot.

a giant vanil­la bean

Today’s har­vest was par­tic­u­lar­ly boun­ti­ful in terms of bean size. In the pho­to, I’m hold­ing one of the biggest beans I’ve ever seen, 240mm in length and weigh­ing in at 33 grams. The aver­age length for a grade I bean is about 180mm and 17g, so that’s sub­stan­tial­ly larg­er than most of the large beans.

You might expect a bean like that from a Tahitian vanil­la (Vanilla tahiten­sis) plant, but we are grow­ing the more com­mon Vanilla plan­i­fo­lia, which pro­duces a small­er bean gen­er­al­ly.

Vanilla bean green grades are by length: grade I is 150mm and over, grade II is 150 — 100mm, and grade III is less than 100mm. This is impor­tant because the pro­cess­ing is slight­ly dif­fer­ent for each grade. The larg­er the bean, the more time it gets in the kill bath and in the sweat­ing stage.

For the beans in this kill bath, it is the begin­ning of a long process: 10 days of sweat­ing fol­lowed by 3–6 weeks of air-dry­ing. After that, the by now shriv­eled and dark brown or black beans are con­di­tioned for 9 months before they are grad­ed and made into extract.

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Our First Full-Scale Flowering in the Vanillery

The vanillery is exact­ly 3 years old now. This Spring, for the first time, we’re see­ing full flow­er­ing on all the rows. This is great news for vanil­la pro­duc­tion here, our last two years have seen fair­ly small har­vests. At this rate, there may be many hun­dreds of pods in here for next win­ter’s har­vest.

Having this many flow­ers does require a sig­nif­i­cant time invest­ment to get them all pol­li­nat­ed. This is the peak of the flow­er­ing cycle, and we’re see­ing 1 — 1 1/2 hours of pol­li­nat­ing each morn­ing, and that will keep up for 2 — 3 weeks. You def­i­nite­ly have to plan your morn­ing around that.

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A Natural Vanilla Nursery

The cluster of seedlings beginning to climb up.
The clus­ter of seedlings begin­ning to climb up.

In the first sea­son of fruit in the vanillery, I let a cou­ple of beans ripen nat­u­ral­ly, as I some­times do when they’re too small or over­ripe. When they ripen on the vine, they split open, turn black and even­tu­al­ly the tiny, tiny seeds come out. I guess if things are just right where those seeds fall, they will ger­mi­nate and grow into new vines.

This is, in my expe­ri­ence, pret­ty unusu­al. Most of the time none of those seeds sprout, and the lit­tle vines that emerge aren’t tough like full-grown vanil­la, they’re extreme­ly del­i­cate. It would­n’t take much going wrong for that sprout to not sur­vive.

Near one of the bam­boo posts in the vanillery, it looks like the con­di­tions were just right, because a whole clus­ter of lit­tle vines formed in that one spot. You can see that in this pho­to, although the seedling vines are tucked way in. They’re begin­ning to climb up the bam­boo post and the oth­er vines.

I won­der if these vines will be dif­fer­ent? Almost all of the vanil­la plants here came from a sin­gle vine my grand­moth­er plant­ed some 40 years ago. These new vines will have some genet­ic variation…who knows how much, though, because the pollen came from the same plant. We’ll see.

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Grading the 2016 Harvest

full-harvest-aug-2016-3Took the beans out of their box today: it’s time to grade the har­vest. The last beans came off the open-air dry­ing racks two months ago, and they’ve been con­di­tion­ing in their box since then. The beans are grad­ed at this point, divid­ed into the two grades by size, mois­ture con­tent, and appear­ance.

The grade A beans are bun­dled and placed in the con­di­tion­ing box for anoth­er 7 months, so there is a total of 9 months of con­di­tion­ing after the dry­ing is com­plete. The cured beans are sold to the culi­nary trade for direct use in recipes. They are brown in col­or and filled with fra­grant, oily “caviar,” the seeds and pulp of the vanil­la pod after cur­ing. This is where the fra­grance of the vanil­la bean is con­cen­trat­ed.

The grade B beans in part will be sold as grade B beans, but most will be used to make extract. We make two dif­fer­ent types of extract: one, a 100% local extract using Koloa Rum, made on the west side of Kauai. The sec­ond is an organ­ic extract using Prairie organ­ic vod­ka. The beans sit in the alco­hol for a min­i­mum of 6 months before we begin to sell them.

It’s a good har­vest this year, I’m very proud of it! The beans are in beau­ti­ful con­di­tion.

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We Add a Personal Weather Station

pws-first-day-1
Queen’s Acres KHIKAPAA19

Today, we hoist­ed our Ambient Weather WS-1400IP sen­sor unit atop it’s mount­ing pole. I’ve always want­ed to keep our own local weath­er data, and with the addi­tion of this device, we are offi­cial­ly col­lect­ing data and shar­ing it on the net. We’re still work­ing out some of the details, but this is a excit­ing devel­op­ment as far as I’m con­cerned.

We call the sta­tion “Queen’s Acres,” which is one of the names used for our neigh­bor­hood on the back side of Nonou Mountain near Kapaa. Our data stream is vis­i­ble on Weather Underground at KHIKAPAA19