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Farming the World’s Second Most Expensive Spice 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2016
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You’re tired of living in the city, you want out of the rat race. Your vision: to be able to make a living and raise your children with something more meaningful.

So you head for the Big Island, find 24 acres of land along the Hamakua Coast and settle in, excited for what the future holds.

But wait, you haven’t decided what to grow yet! Over dinner with your family, your mother-in-law suggests vanilla. And thus, the journey towards becoming the first commercial vanilla growers in the U.S. begins.

The Hawaiian Vanilla Co. is a labor of love for Jim Reddekopp, his wife, Tracy, and their five children.

Being the “first” hasn’t been an easy road. Reddekopp didn’t want to just grow, he wanted to cultivate the best. Apparently, there are more than 100 varieties of vanilla orchids, but only two are commercially produced.

His journey took him all over the world — to the birthplace of vanilla in Mexico, as well as to Micronesia and Haiti. He’s also searched out the latest in vanilla technology at Rutgers University.

But even with all his research, Reddekopp has had years of good harvests and years of none. And he learned through this experience that anything worthwhile takes time.

Vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops to produce. The plant is an orchid that blooms for just one day a year, for a few hours, typically in the early morning or late afternoon. If the orchid is to produce a vanilla bean, it has to be delicately hand-pollinated, one-by-one, while it’s in bloom.

The bean then remains on the branch for nine months, developing its flavor in the last three months.

The orchid grows above ground in troughs of black “shade cloth” that help with drainage and aeration. Instead of soil, they grow in orchid bark and New Zealand coconut husk.

The vanilla orchid likes high humidity, ample water, and lots of space to grow. But it still takes a 2-meter long cutting four years to mature enough to produce a vanilla bean. Currently, the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. has approximately 300 vines growing on two acres of their property.

The process of curing, sweating and drying the beans is also laborious — involving sweatboxes, massaging the beans to get their oils flowing, and lots of time basking in the tropical sun — so it’s understandable that vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world.

Vanilla is used all over the planet in food, perfumes and even medicinally. The aroma is known to be calming, relaxing, and, in some cultures, an aphrodisiac.

The United States is the largest consumer of vanilla in the world. Hawaiian Vanilla Co. vanilla is used in Roselani Dairy ice cream, Waialua Soda Works root beer and Filthy Farmgirl soaps, among other things.

Reddekopp’s passion for vanilla shows through during the presentation he or other family members give to the hundreds of guests each week.

Located approximately 37 miles from Hilo, The Hawaiian Vanilla Co., established in 1998, is housed in an old timber building that used to be a coffee mill in the 1920s and a slaughterhouse up through the 1960s.

The quaint yellow house holds a gift shop full of all sorts of fun vanilla products, a kitchen and a dining room for pre-tour lectures, a high tea, and a luncheon featuring vanilla-infused dishes created by Tracy Reddekopp.

Jim Reddekopp will explain how Hawaiian Vanilla Co. came to be, some fascinating facts about vanilla and the science behind raising vanilla orchids. He’ll even give you the simple recipe to create your own vanilla extract.

The “vanilla experience” luncheon features all sorts of interesting dishes, including a vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich with caramelized onions on a vanilla sweet bread bun; a salad with vanilla raspberry balsamic dressing; vanilla honey peppered pecans; and roasted potatoes with the company’s signature vanilla Southwest rub. You can wash it down with a “Jimmy Boy” (half vanilla lemonade, half vanilla iced tea.)

Nothing compares to the taste of real vanilla, which is divine, says Reddekopp.

Hawaii.com offers the chance to win a free trip to Hawaiʻi, insider travel tips and vacation package deals. Book your trip to paradise with Hawaii.com vacation packages.

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Katie Young Yamanaka

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