Spirit of Aloha: Vanilla Dreams, Vanilla Reality

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There was a time when Jim and Tracy Reddekopp knew they wanted to raise their five children on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, but they didn't know they would end up as the only commercial vanilla growers in the United States.

Vanilla, in case you didn't know, doesn't grow just anywhere. The fact is, Hawai‘i is the only place in the United States where growing conditions are just right for the pale-yellow orchid (Vanilla plantfolia) that bears the vanilla seed pods.

"Vanilla seemed to choose us, and not the other way around," says Reddekopp of the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. "The idea to grow this labor-intensive crop came up at a dinner party some years ago. Someone mentioned vanilla and something just clicked." Several factors influenced their decision, one of which was the notion that the profit from just a quarter-acre of vanilla equals that of 4 acres of coffee. But the idea of being the only grower of pure vanilla in the country appealed to Reddekopp, as did his plan to help displaced sugar workers along the Hāmākua Coast.

Now the vanilla-growing scene is changing, according to Reddekopp. "There certainly will be more growers in the future. People are just starting to see opportunities," he says. "Vanilla beans sell for approximately $190 a pound." Augmenting the Reddekopps' income are seminars, vanilla tours, luncheons and a new vanilla cooperative, part of the vanilla miniboom they see on the horizon.

Reddekopp learned how to grow vanilla from a special man. Tom Kadooka had tinkered with growing vanilla since 1941 and, by sharing his knowledge, he hoped Hawaiian vanilla would become the Islands' next world-famous crop. Kadooka died in 2004, but left behind his good student. An agriculture scholarship was created in Kadooka's name to help further vanilla research.

Award-winning Hawai‘i chefs, including George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro restaurant in Honolulu, have created savory dishes using Hawaiian vanilla. They point out that the fragrance of the Hawaiian bean captures the scents of the Islands, giving off aromas of tropical rain showers, rich soils and sweet flower-scented breezes.

Visitors gather for luncheons and afternoon teas at the vanilla mill, in Pa‘auilo, where Tracy Reddekopp performs her magic daily, inventing new vanilla dishes for guests lucky enough to sample them. A five-course menu, served by the Reddekopps' children, offers treats such as Hawaiian vanilla tea, vanilla pumpkin soup with toasted macadamia nuts, Hāmākua salad with vanilla-champagne dressing, banana bread and a signature dish, Hawaiian vanilla bean ice cream with vanilla truffles. While visitors dine, Jim takes the opportunity to talk about how vanilla grows, against a backdrop of the vines spiraling up the mill's porch railings.

After the tour, I asked to visit the greenhouse. "Follow me," said Jim. He roared down a gravel road in his little Ford pickup, and we followed. As we pulled up in a cloud of dust behind his truck, Jim turned to me and said, "Welcome to the country." Now we could see where the orchids are grown and tended, and Jim demonstrated how each orchid is hand-pollinated. "This," he said, "is what we call the marriage of vanilla."

Later we sat in the early evening light, mountain showers misting our faces, gazing through groves of eucalyptus and koa to the open sea. "This is our dream, and it's all about our dreams becoming a reality," said Jim. "A vanilla reality. We've been blessed."

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