Flying in along the steep, volcanic, cloud-forested cone of the Fijian island of Taveuni, you’ll see the green grids of coconut plantations on one side and the shiny roofs and solar panels of beachfront resorts on the other.
But a new player in Taveuni’s economy is much more difficult to spot: fleshy vanilla vines, whose dried and cured seedpods fetch high prices in upscale supermarkets overseas.
Just over the hill from the island’s tiny airport, where 10-seater planes shuttle tourists and locals to and from Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, Marama Vanilla – Fiji’s first organic certified vanilla farm – tucks into the edge of a swathe of virgin rainforest.
Marama means ‘woman’ in Fijian, and co-founder and director Libby Pickering says that’s no accident. While her husband does plenty of infrastructure work around the plantation, she’s the one who takes care of the farming side of things.
She has also trained up other local women to work with her on the plantation, and she regularly visits women’s cooperatives around the island to share knowledge, give out cuttings and help those interested to plant their own vines, too.
“I find that it’s a great thing to do, as an older woman who has the time and the patience,” Pickering says. “And you do need time and patience: you need to nurture these vines. It’s not something you can rush around and do quickly.”
Cultivating vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), Pickering explains, is exacting and time-consuming work.
“It’s not like doing dalo (taro, Colocasia esculenta) or kava (Piper methysticum), where you just put it in the ground and it grows,” she says. “It’s like looking after a child.”
“Vanilla is very fussy: it needs just the right amount of sunlight, fresh air, water – that’s why most people don’t do it. But I’m teaching them to look at the long-term financial gain: once you’ve gotten through the first hurdles, you can make a lot of extra money from it.”
It takes three years for the planted vines to flower, during which they need to be wound well around structures or trees so they’re supported and accessible. Then, when the vines’ green orchids flower – each one for just a few hours – they need to be hand-pollinated to produce the pods.
Nine months later, the pods are harvested, then ‘cured’ though blanching, sweating, and air drying for six months to develop the chemical compound called vanillin – the signature scent and flavor that has made vanilla a cornerstone of the planet’s confectionery and cosmetics industries.
The epiphytic species, which is native to Mexico and Central and South America, is well-suited for Fijian conditions: it likes warm, humid weather, proximity to the ocean, fertile volcanic soils, and a dry season in which to flower and be pollinated. It grows best climbing on trees, so it also fits in well with the country’s diversified agricultural practices and particular blend of traditional and modern agroforestry.
At Marama Vanilla, the vines are cultivated in conjunction with a wide range of other crops that are sold or consumed at home, such as cocoa, bananas, turmeric, and pineapples. Because the pods can be stored for an extended period if cured well, farmers can also sell them when it suits them, as well as when they get the chance to access bigger markets on Viti Levu.
Across the Pacific Islands, many farmers and investors are turning their attention to vanilla as worldwide shortages keep prices high: it’s the second most expensive spice after saffron.
Madagascar currently grows about 80 percent of the world’s vanilla orchids, but it often can’t produce enough high-quality pods to meet demand amid a wide range of issues, from climate change impacts to theft.
Pacific Island operations are likely too small to be able to make a dent in the international market, said Piero Bianchessi, the former director of Vanuatu-based company Venui Vanilla, in a presentation to the Pacific Island Farmers Organisation Network (PIFON).
“Our experience over the last few decades has shown that quantity of vanilla produced by most Pacific Island countries – with the exception of Papua New Guinea – is unlikely to be anywhere near sufficient to enter bulk world spice markets,” he said.
“Nor is the price received on bulk markets anywhere near enough to justify the cost involved in producing and marketing small quantities from remote locations.”
But niche specialty markets, where higher prices are paid for premium quality, offer plenty of promise, said PIFON manager Lavinia Kaumaitotoya. “This is a high-value product well suited to small village-based farmers living in more remote locations,” she said.
“Farmers in such locations tend to be isolated from markets and rely on expensive and often infrequent transport to sell their produce. So, any cash crops grown needs to have a high value-to-weight ratio – and vanilla offers this.”
The climate crisis is already impacting Pacific Island agriculture in numerous ways. Sea level rise, coastal inundation and soil salinity are rendering some areas unfarmable, while more intense and frequent cyclones risk wiping out crops entirely.
Temperature changes, too, are playing havoc with once profitable arrangements. For instance, some vanilla farmers in Vanuatu have had to relocate their plantations because the plant no longer flowers in the places where it used to be most productive.
But as space for agriculture shifts or disappears, the region’s vanilla farmers are hopeful that the crop’s high value, and its ability to be cultivated alongside other useful crops, makes it a worthwhile ingredient in their personal recipes for a good life.
“There’s a lot to learn; you have to want to do it,” says Pickering, whose big dream is to establish a cooperative of growers on the island and set up an export-quality organic processing facility. “But I really do think that a lot of women want to – and that they’re capable of it, too.”
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