A Fragrant Trip to Paradise

What started as an aid mission, ended up launching a tropical business that is turning the world of vanilla up-side-down.

Heilala Vanilla Kingdom of Tonga, Vavav'u Island

Ten years ago, a dairy farmer from New Zealand, John Ross, set out on the trip of a lifetime. Leaving his homeland in his self-built 52-foot launch, he headed for the island nation of Tonga to celebrate his 60th birthday. He eventually landed on the exotic tropical Island of Vava'u, part of the island nation of Tonga, and settled in the village of Utungake, befriending the local chieftain of the village and his family, the Latu family.

Heilala Vanilla Family Picture

Although John did some immediate work to help the village, like building a playground for the local school children, and building living quarters for the local school teacher, John’s goal ultimately was more long-term – to find a more sustainable agricultural project, one that would help the village prosper in the long run, and give the locals, many of whom were well educated, a way to earn a living without leaving their island paradise.

John from Heilala Vanilla during harvest John, along with the village elders, eventually decided that vanilla was an ideal crop to grown on Tonga. Land was plentiful, the climate was perfect (like coffee and chocolate, the world’s vanilla all grows within 20-degrees of the equator), and there was plenty of highly capably local labor available to help cultivate the labor-intensive crop. Add to that the fact that vanilla prices are good, and not as susceptible to wild seasonal price fluctuations, unlike many more common tropical fruit crops. In fact, vanilla has been known to fetch as much as $300 to $500 a kilo on the world market – which makes it the second most expensive crop in the world, after saffron.

A bit about Vanilla

Heilala Vanilla Plantation Before the mid-19th century, most of the world’s vanilla was grown in Mexico. That was before a French botanist named Charles François Antoine Marren discovered, much by accident in 1836, how a certain black bee in the Veracruz area of Mexico was key to the vanilla’s pollination. In 1841, and after much experimentation, Marren figured out how to pollinate the vanilla flowers by hand.

In 1819, French entrepreneurs had shipped vanilla beans to the tropical islands of Reuion and Mauritius, hoping to produce vanilla there. But the tropical orchids were unproductive, until Edmond Albius heard about Marren’s methods, and started pollinating the vanilla flowers by hand. Soon, orchids were sent to the Comoros Islands and Madagascar, and by 1898, most of the world’s vanilla pods were coming from locations other than Mexico. Currently, Madagascar is now responsible for 58% of the world’s vanilla production, and the vast majority of the bourbon cultivar.

Hailala Vanilla Pods There are three main varieties of vanilla: Bourbon Vanilla (V. planifolia) is the classic and most common vanilla beans, and is largely grown in the Indian Ocean islands, such as Madagascar, Comoros and Reunion. Mexican vanilla is also V. planifolia, but is frequently mixed with an artificial bean-like extract, which smells and tastes much like vanilla, but can be toxic to your liver; Tahitian Vanilla (V. tahitiensis) beans are bigger and more floral than the Bourbon beans, and are largely grown in French Polynesia; West Indian Vanilla (V. pompon) is a strain grown primarily in the Caribbean.

Back to Tonga

John Ross of Heilala Vanilla
Ultimately, it took over three years of love, care and hard work to get the plantation on Tongo off the ground. It is a very labor-intensive process to develop and nurture the vanilla vines to the point where they can produce a viable crop; each vanilla flower must be hand-pollinate as soon as the blooms appear, as there are no bees on the island, and pods then take nine months to grow, all the while the vines need to be trained, weeded and pruned, all while maintaining organic horticultural practices. Once mature, the pods are hand-picked, dipped in hot water, and then dried on special trays, as the curing process begins and the aroma and flavor is carefully developed.
Jennifer of Heilala Vanilla

Heilala’s Tongo Plantation celebrated its first commercial crop in 2005; 40 kilos of vanilla pods – each picked and processed by hand. Today, the Tonga plantation employs over 30 people, and they harvested over 20 tons of green beans, which were dried and processed into vanilla products by John’s daughter, Jennifer, and son-in-law, Garth Boggiss, in Tauranga, New Zealand.

Heilala Vanilla products are now available from ChefShop.com .

Heilala 2X Vanilla Extract

Heilala Vanilla Powder

Heilala 2X Vanilla Paste