More than 100 years ago, vanilla orchids grew wild among the native trees in niue, an island country in the south pacific ocean. today, the aromatic bean is organically grown, delicately pollinated and naturally cured by niue Vanilla international. We catch up with managing director stanley kalauni to talk about cultivating, harvesting and curing one of the world’s most valuable spices.
VANILLA BEANS FROM NIUE ARE KNOWN FOR THEIR FLORAL, AROMATIC QUALITIES, BUTTELL US ABOUT THE TASTE.
We specialise in producing vanilla Tahitensis beans, which are plump with a thin skin and lots of seeds. They have around 25-30 per cent moisture level content. The pods themselves are dark brown, almost black in colour, and pliable enough to wrap around your finger without breaking. They are a popular base ingredient for pastry, cakes and chocolate, along with coffee, perfumes and even cigars.
HOW DOES NIUE, A TINY ISLAND NATION 2400KM NORTH-EAST OF NEW ZEALAND MANAGE TO PRODUCE SO MUCH VANILLA?
Current vanilla production is estimated at 2 tonnes of cured beans per year, with the potential of reaching 5 tonnes or more in three to four years. Vanilla has grown wild in Niue for some time and today, is one of the country’s main export crops. Since humble beginnings in 1991, the Niue vanilla industry has grown steadily and now stands at a collection of 36,878 vanilla vines. With the structural aid of support trees that are planted by more than 100 vanilla growers from 14 villages around Niue, the industry has managed to reach a new competitive level and expand with new opportunities.
LIKE COCOA PLANTATIONS, VANILLA IS OFTEN GROWN ON A SMALL-SCALE BY LOCAL FAMILIES. IS IT CHALLENGING WORKING WITH SO MANY DIFFERENT STAKEHOLDERS?
Yes, there have been many challenges. Cyclone Heta devastated the island in 2004 and, coupled with other events, most of the local farmers willingly abandoned their plantations because of damages and general loss of hope. There were some farmers who even demolished their own farms, which had taken years of hard labour to cultivate. Only a few remained untouched and overgrown until now. This is where Niue Vanilla International comes in; we work together in partnership with all stakeholders to encourage local farmers to help revive the local industry and generate a reliable flow of income to the country and its people.
VANILLA ORCHIDS ARE HARD WORK. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST LABOUR SOME ASPECTS OF GROWING AND PRODUCING THIS CROP?
Flower pollination is a very important aspect of production that has to be done by hand. Flowers blossom after about nine to 14 months of cultivation and regular maintenance. Once the flowers open, they are known to sometimes last for just one day, where growers need pollinate the flower immediately – usually in the morning before the flower closes and falls off the vanilla plant. One successful pollination results in one bean, so every bean a baker comes across has resulted from a flower being pollinated. The size of the bean depends largely on how skillful the growers are in pollinating, and how healthy the vanilla vines and plants have grown.
WHEN IS THE FLOWERING SEASON?
It’s normally expected to be from June to November, but with climate change, flowers have started to blossom on an unpredictable year-round pattern. Some months are now producing more flowers than others, which may affect production schedules in the future.
WHAT DOES THE HARVESTING PROCESS INVOLVE?
After pollination and after the beans are formed as an end product, it normally takes nine to 10 months for vanilla beans to mature and become ready for proper harvest. Vanilla beans are harvested when they change colour from green to yellowish brown. Beans are sorted and graded into different size categories according to the bean length and quality. The beans are then cured naturally under an organic certified facility, where they are dried under the hot sun for up to three to four months depending on weather conditions.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE GROWERS AND FARMERS ARE BEING PAID FAIRLY?
We work closely with 60 growers and farmers to produce premium-quality vanilla beans for the global market. Local farmers cultivate and manage their own family plots consistent with organic practices and standards. Roughly 90 per cent of growers are registered members of Niue Island Organic Farmers Association, an organisation responsible for ensuing BioGro guidelines and standards are maintained at all times. BioGro is New Zealand’s largest and best-known certifier for organic produce and products.