Photos: Copyright Heilala Vanilla
On 31 December 2001 the island of Vava’u in Tonga was struck by Cyclone Waka. In winds of 190 km per hour, tree trunks snapped, houses were reduced to matchsticks, and crops destroyed. From that destruction however grew something sweet. This is the story of Heilala Vanilla.
Today Heilala Vanilla is a successful vanilla brand exporting to Australia, USA, UK and Europe. They’ve won multiple awards, but CEO Jennifer Boggiss says she’s most proud of the Navigator Award won in March 2021 from the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, in recognition of an individual or business which has had economic and social impacts benefitting multiple communities.
Heilala’s close relationships with Tongan vanilla growers contributed to the award. Immediately after Cyclone Waka, Jennifer’s father, John Ross, travelled with Papakura Rotarians to assist with the rebuild. Seeing the devastated crops, John thought a vanilla-growing partnership could financially sustain Tongan communities.
He settled on Madagascar Bourbon vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) because it had been established in Tonga during the 70s under American guidance. The Americans had managed their partnership from afar and after several years’ absence, the crop eventually subsided.
Vanilla had grown wild from cuttings taken from Tahiti around 1850 but hadn’t been cultivated until the mid-1950s. John saw that vanilla was sustainable, could support growers in the long term, and was non-perishable, which was crucial without reliable freight services.
Another crop for smallholders
John intensively researched vanilla cultivation and curing. Tonga’s previous Minister of Agriculture on Vava’u, Haniteli Fa’anunu, contributed his expertise, and in 2002 Heilala Vanilla began as an aid project with the Latu family of Utungake village, who contributed eight acres.
Now 400 smallholder families grow it on allotments of up to eight acres that have been handed down through the generations. They also grow kava, taro, bananas, pineapple and yams for local markets, so they remain resilient in the face of climate and crop fluctuations.
In 2018 Heilala planted two 50-acre plots in partnership with the King of Tonga. Twenty people are employed now, but an estimated 200 will be employed in pollination and harvesting periods when the King’s plots begin to produce.
“We try to pay farmers above market prices,” says Jennifer. “We have invested in teaching Tongans how to grow, dry and cure premium vanilla, and since Tonga has suffered from booms and busts in export produce, we’re mindful of taking the long view.”
Vanilla is an orchid, and a vine. It requires support to climb and its ideal host is the indigenous fiki tree (Jatropha curcas), which provides good shade while allowing sufficient sun to produce flowers.
The vines need lots of warmth and rainfall, plus a critical hot dry period prior to spring to encourage flowering. They begin producing flowers 3–5 years after planting; buds appear in September–October and mature over six weeks.
Timing is crucial for pollination. Within four hours of opening, the yellow flowers must be hand-pollinated with a toothpick. Growers know from years of experience when the buds they’ve been observing are about to open. Once pollinated, the flower stem begins to swell and becomes a bean, which matures over nine months. When the tip of the bean yellows it’s ready to harvest.
Vines grow rapidly, soon reaching for the sky. Much of the crop maintenance involves looping these skyward runners back through the tree many times over during the 10–15 years of each plant’s productive life. Vines are cut back to stimulate flowering, and cuttings taken for replanting and expanding the crop.
Vanilla orchids don’t need fertiliser, but mulching with composted natural materials – including coconut husks – helps protect the roots and retain moisture. Growers hand-weed the bases of the host trees (where the vanilla vine is planted). Irrigation is not needed because the rainfall in Tonga is plentiful.
Plantations are sited well inland since vanilla orchids don’t like salt. In a cyclone it’s often the salt that kills them. Any broken vines can always be re-looped.
The origins of vanilla
Vanilla grows across equatorial regions around the planet. There are over a hundred species of vanilla orchid, but the two varieties used most in food are Bourbon vanilla (V. planifolia), and Tahitian (V. Tahitensis – grown in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and French Polynesia including Tahiti).
A native of South and Central America and the Caribbean, vanilla was probably first cultivated in Mexico. In the 1500s the Spanish conquistadors observed Montezuma drinking it with cacao. The Aztecs also traded vanilla.
In Mexico a stingless native bee pollinates the orchids, but the lack of a natural pollinator made it difficult to produce vanilla elsewhere. The Spanish took plants to Spain, and a taste for the spice spread throughout Europe. The French transplanted vines on Réunion Island (near Madagascar); none bore fruit although they flowered. In 1836 a Belgian, Charles Morren, pollinated the flowers by hand, a process soon after refined by Edmond Albus, a twelve-year-old slave on Réunion.
Now there was a product. A commodity crop.
Vanilla as a commodity typically passes through many hands: growers, dryers and curers, exporters, processers, manufacturers, warehousers, distributors, marketers and retailers. Vanilla prices can be affected by a glut, a cyclone, or a single huge consumer changing what it does.
When Coca Cola used vanilla in their drinks, the quantity was so large that when they stopped buying it, the market flooded and prices fell. In such situations growers earn so little it’s tempting not to bother hand-pollinating the flowers. When the market suddenly demands again, prices rocket because production has lapsed and vanilla takes up to five years to produce from scratch.
The Heilala difference
Heilala is the fragrant national flower of Tonga, Garcinia sessilis, which is often used to make garlands. Heilala Vanilla products are not certified organic, but where vanilla is grown, inputs such as fertilisers are ordinarily unaffordable so it tends to be organically grown. It’s too expensive to certify the growers who are spread over a wide area, and too much bureaucracy might discourage them, Jennifer says.
It is, however, a naturally grown product and ingredient. “Over 90 percent of the world’s vanilla is synthetic,” says Jennifer. “Unless it’s a luxury brand, there’s [no real vanilla] in vanilla ice cream, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, yoghurt, custards, or cake mixes.”
Jennifer says Heilala Vanilla is the only company in the world engaged in vanilla production from growing to pantry, and they’ve worked with the same people since 2002. “That’s been valuable over the last 18 months since we haven’t been able to be there,” she says.
“If Tonga was open, Dad (now 79) would be there because it’s harvest season next week [early May]. He’s been working on a Plant & Food Research project in New Zealand to help improve yield and quality in Tonga. Since 2016, climate change has meant the hot dry spell required for flowering has weakened considerably, and yield is dropping.”
Dry, cure and ferment
In their absence from Tonga, manager Sela Latu on the island of ’Eua employs people to purchase the fresh green beans, and dry, and cure them.
Harvested beans go through a traditional fermentation process, being first dipped in hot water and sweated. Then they’re laid in the sun to dry, where they’re turned and massaged daily for six to eight weeks. Experienced drier-curers know how good vanilla beans should look – dark, shiny, supple, and with no more than 35% moisture content – it’s as much art as science.
The beans are bundled for export to Heilala’s New Zealand operation in Tauranga, where 90% are converted into extracts, pastes or powder, and the remainder packaged as whole beans. The greater percentage of product is exported to the US, followed by Australia.
In pursuit of their zero-waste goal, Heilala has developed a bioactive anti-ageing skincare product, which means they now use the entire vanilla bean.
“Our greatest challenge has been the level of investment required not just to grow, but to operate in two countries and align the business across both,” says Jennifer.
“We do a good job but it is something we really have to work on, particularly over Covid, which has made it harder. You can have as many phone calls or face-time calls as you want, but it’s not like being there.”
“There is laughter and humour every day because life in Tonga isn’t taken too seriously. It’s a cultural mindset, and our relationship requires respect and patience. Tongans need to know we’re here for them long term.”
Heilala Vanilla at a glance
• Location: Vanilla grown in Tonga on Vava’u, Eua and Tongatapu; processed in Tauranga, Aotearoa
• Growers: Over 400 smallholders
• Variety: Vanilla planifolia (Bourbon vanilla)
• Products: Vanilla beans, extracts, paste, powder, essence, skincare
Put a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar for 3–4 months to flavour the sugar.
Triple vanilla shortbread
100 g icing sugar
200 g plain flour
100 g cornflour
200 g very soft butter
2 tsp Heilala Vanilla Bean Paste
Heilala Vanilla Syrup and Heilala Vanilla Sugar for brushing and sprinkling
1. Preheat oven to 160°C.
2. Sieve icing sugar, flour, and cornflour into a bowl.
3. Add butter and vanilla bean paste, and mix until a crumbly dough forms.
4. Tip onto a bench dusted with cornflour and knead until smooth.
5. Roll into tablespoon-sized balls and flatten slightly.
6. Place 2 cm apart on a tray lined with baking paper.
7. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until starting to turn lightly golden.
8. While cookies are still hot, brush with vanilla syrup and sprinkle with vanilla sugar.
Photos: Copyright Heilala Vanilla
© Theresa Sjoquist – article 2021
First published in Organic NZ Magazine – September/October 2021 Vol.80 No.5