Growing a Flavorful Agribusiness: Vanilla
—Hamakua Couple Takes on the Finicky Vanilla Orchid and Makes a Market for Hawaiian Vanilla
…By Denise Laitinen…
When Jim and Tracy Reddekopp purchased their property in Pa‘auilo back in 1998, they weren’t sure what they were going to build or grow. The two O‘ahu natives just knew that they wanted to get away from the rat race of Honolulu and raise their kids on a farm. They didn’t foresee becoming the country’s first and only commercial growers of vanilla, single-handedly creating a vanilla product industry in Hawai‘i, or that they would start a successful agribusiness that would draw thousands of visitors from around the world. No, back then they were sitting around the family dinner table trying to figure out what to do with the land.
“Originally, our goal was to raise our children on a farm,” says Jim Reddekopp. “It wasn’t until my mother-in-law asked what we were going to grow besides children that we really thought about what we were going to plant.” Tracy’s mother, an orchid enthusiast, had just taken a course at the Lyman Arboretum on O‘ahu and suggested growing vanilla bean orchids. The rest is history.
“The idea of vanilla just sparked something in my brain,” says Reddekopp. “I started researching it, calling around to different agricultural departments and groups.”
“Only one farmer called me back, and he said he had an uncle experimenting with vanilla orchids.” That uncle was Tom Kadooka from Kainaliu in South Kona. Reddekopp really wanted to pursue growing vanilla and thus began a mentoring friendship between the two men. “He [Kadooka] always felt that vanilla was a viable crop and I was the first student under him that really took it up. Mr. Kadooka was a real-life Mr. Miyagi (the famous martial arts mentor of the Karate Kid movie fame). You had to ask the right question to get the right answer.”
Over the next four years, the quiet and humble Kadooka patiently taught Reddekopp, showing him how to pollinate and cultivate the plants.
Like other orchids, Vanilla plantifolia can be finicky and thus be a struggle to grow at times. According to Reddekopp, vanilla is produced by a type of orchid that forms vanilla bean pods and requires careful hand pollination. These orchids bloom only one day per year for a few short hours and pollination does not necessarily guarantee that vanilla pods will form, after which they require eight to nine months
“In the beginning, people were a bit apprehensive or scared when pollinating,” explains Reddekopp, “but after you’ve done it a hundred times or so it gets to be pretty routine.” Kadooka taught Reddekopp how to pollinate using a toothpick, a practice used in other parts of the world to pollinate vanilla. “I wanted to learn to do it just with my fingers,” says Reddekopp. “I wanted all my employees to learn how to pollinate with their fingers so they wouldn’t be able to say they couldn’t pollinate because they didn’t have a stick.”
Hawaiian Vanilla Company, the business formed by the Reddekopps, grows their crop from tissue culture and cuttings, a process that takes about five years for the plant to reach maturity. They grow anywhere from a couple hundred to 8,000 plants at a time in two greenhouses, depending on where the plants are in their growth stage. “Right now we’re trying to do some seed germinations and that will take about eight years before we have flowers,” adds Reddekopp.
It took a lot of trial and error to learn how to cultivate the vanilla. “These little orchids are tricky in how they need attention at some times and not at other times,” explains General Manager Doug Sessions. There were times when crops didn’t grow or under-produced. There were times when the plants were watered too much and caused root rot or the plants were over-pollinated and the vines died.
Through those early days, Jim and Tracy stuck to their goal: to cultivate the best vanilla in the world.
The vanilla species grown in Pa’auilo is the same species grown in other parts of the world. “What’s unique about us is that vanilla is very much a living part of what everyone does here,” says Sessions. “We all truly love vanilla orchids.”
Learning to grow orchids was just one of the hurdles crossed when they started out. As with any new business venture the biggest challenge was money. “We are the first commercial growers in the U.S. People believed in [vanilla] and wanted to see it come to fruition so the biggest thing was backing. We received a couple of USDA grants that were vital to our start-up.”
With the vanilla business flourishing, Reddekopp wants others to become successful vanilla farmers. He shepherds a cooperative of 11 other Big Island vanilla growers, all with the aim of promoting an exclusive, high-end, Made-in-Hawai‘i product.
“We’d love to see other people growing vanilla up here,” adds Sessions. “We’ll teach you how to grow vanilla and then buy it from you. There’s lots of land up here, we just need the farmers. Vanilla just happens to be the second most expensive spice on earth and it can be a profitable crop for local farmers.”
Part of the reason other farmers can make money is that the Reddekopps single-handedly created a market for vanilla throughout the state. “When we started we had to figure out who was going to buy it,” says Reddekopp. “We knew we would have to grow a heck of a lot of vanilla to support a family of five kids if we only sold at the local farmers market. Our thought process was that we needed to find a way to create products.”
From the beginning Reddekopp worked with prominent area chefs and well-known, local food companies to incorporate vanilla into their products, thus creating a market for Hawaiian-grown vanilla. Jim first enlisted Chefs George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro on O‘ahu and Beverly Gannon of Hali’imaile General Store on Maui to add dishes to their menus featuring the vanilla beans. Those chefs continue to use Hawaiian Vanilla, as do the restaurants at the Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea resorts. The Four Seasons at Hualalai uses the vanilla all over the resort, from the spa to the restaurants.
In 2005, Hawaiian Vanilla partnered with Maui-based Roselani Ice Cream to create Hawaiian Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.
Hawaiian Vanilla Company now makes 70 vanilla products that are found in stores on Hawai‘i Island, O‘ahu, and Maui. Everything is hand packed at the farm. Of course they make pure vanilla extract and vanilla bean. But they also make culinary products such as their lilikoi, toffee, and chocolate sauces; balsamic and lilikoi salad dressings; home fragrance; lip balm; estate-grown coffee; black tea; beauty care products and farm-and-garden skin care products.
Today, visitors and locals alike make the trip to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, tucked away high on the mountainside, along the Hamakua coastline in Pa‘auilo. They’re drawn to the bright yellow building, fondly called the “Vanillary,” which sits above the farm. The company offers farm tours, a tea brunch, a “Vanilla Experience” gourmet lunch, and vanilla tastings. They also offer educational opportunities for those who want to learn how to grow vanilla with seminars, cultivation classes and vanilla production workshops.
Reddekopp continues to build a diversified business based on agriculture and tourism. Yet he has not forgotten his roots. After his mentor Tom Kadooka passed away in 2004, Hawaiian Vanilla Company created the Hamakua Alive Festival to generate money for the Tom Kadooka Foundation, which provides scholarships to students willing to pursue degrees in agriculture. The festival occurs every fall at the farm to celebrate local farmers and their crops.
In addition to generating funds for the Kadooka Foundation, the Reddekopps hope to inspire the next generation of farmers by supporting agriculture in local schools. Hawaiian Vanilla Company supports the Honoka‘a Agriculture Department at Honoka‘a High School by funding agriculture student field trips to the mainland.
For more info on the Hawaiian Vanilla Company go to www.hawaiianvanilla.com.
Contact writer Denise Laitinen at email@example.com.