Flying along the steep, volcanic cone and cloud forests 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 it’s much harder to discover a new player in Taveuni’s economy: the fleshy vanilla vines, whose dried and processed seeds fetch high prices in high-end supermarkets abroad.

Just over the hill from the island’s small airport, where 10-seat planes ferry tourists and locals to and from Viti’s largest island, Viti Levu, Marama Vanilla – Fiji’s first certified organic vanilla farm – sits on the edge of a vast expanse of pristine rainforest.

a light It means “woman” in Fijian, and co-founder and director Libby Pickering says that’s no coincidence. While her husband does a lot of the infrastructure work around the farm, she is the one who takes care of the agricultural side of things.

She has also trained other local women to work with her on the farm, and she regularly collaborates with women’s cooperatives across the island to share knowledge, distribute cuttings and help those interested in growing their own vines as well.

“I find it a great thing to do, as an older woman who has the time and patience,” Pickering says. “And you need time and patience: you need to take care of these vines. It’s not something you can rush into and do quickly.

Aerial view of Taveuni. Courtesy of Monica Evans

Longer vision

vanilla cultivation (Vanilla planifoliaThis is hard and time-consuming work, Pickering explains.

“It’s not like doing gave (Taro, Colocasia esculenta) or kava (Piper methysticum“You put it in the ground and it grows,” she says. “It’s like taking care of a child.”

“Vanilla is very sensitive: it only needs the right amount of sunlight, fresh air and water – that’s why most people don’t do it. But I teach them to look at the long-term financial gain: once you get past 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 must be well wrapped around structures or trees so they are supported and accessible. Then, when the green orchids flower—each one for just a few hours—they need to be hand-pollinated to produce the pods.

After nine months, the pods are harvested, then “processed” through blanching, sweating and air-drying for six months to develop the chemical compound called vanillin – the distinctive aroma and flavor that has made vanilla a cornerstone of the planet’s confectionery and cosmetic industries. .

Libby Pickering
Libby Pickering pollinates vanilla flowers on the farm. Courtesy of Marama Vanilla

This type of epiphyte, native to Mexico and Central and South America, is well suited to Fiji’s conditions: it likes warm, humid weather, proximity to the ocean, fertile volcanic soil, and a dry season in which it flowers and is pollinated. . It grows best when it climbs trees, so it also fits well with the country’s diverse agricultural practices and special blend of traditional and modern agroforestry.

At Marama Vanilla, vines are grown alongside a wide range of other crops that are sold or consumed at home, such as cocoa, bananas, turmeric and pineapple. Since the pods can be stored for a long time if treated well, farmers can also sell them when it suits them, as well as when they have access to larger markets on Viti Levu.

Lucrative niche?

Throughout the Pacific Islands, many growers and investors are turning their attention to vanilla as a global shortage drives up prices: it is the second most expensive spice after saffron.

Madagascar currently grows about 80 percent of the world’s orchids, but it often cannot produce enough high-quality pods to meet demand amid a wide range of issues, from the effects of climate change to theft.

Operations in the Pacific islands are likely too small to make an impact in the international market, Piero Bianchesi, former director of Vanuatu-based Vinoy Vanilla, said in a report. Power point Pacific Island Farmer Organizations Network (PIFON).

“Our experience over the past few decades has shown that the amount of vanilla produced by most Pacific island nations – with the exception of Papua New Guinea – is unlikely to be anywhere near sufficient to enter global spice markets in significant quantities,” he said.

“Also, the price received in wholesale markets is nowhere near enough to justify the cost involved in producing and marketing small quantities from remote locations.”

But PIFON director Lavinia Kaumaitotoya said niche markets, where higher prices are paid for higher quality, offer a lot of promise. “This is a high-value product that is well suited for small village farmers living in remote places,” she said.

“Farmers in such locations tend to be isolated from markets and rely on expensive and often infrequent means of transport to sell their produce. Therefore, any cash crops grown need a high value-to-weight ratio – and vanilla provides that.”

Owners Marama Vanilla
Libby Pickering and her daughter Avalon. Courtesy of Marama Vanilla

The climate crisis is already affecting agriculture in the Pacific Islands in many ways. Rising sea levels, coastal flooding and soil salinity are making some areas unsuitable for agriculture, while more intense and frequent hurricanes threaten to wipe out crops entirely.

Temperature changes also wreak havoc on previously profitable arrangements. For example, some vanilla growers in Vanuatu have had to do this Moving their farms Because the plant no longer blooms in places where it was most productive.

But as acreage shifts or disappears, the region’s vanilla growers hope that the crop’s high value, and its ability to be grown alongside other beneficial crops, makes it a worthwhile ingredient in their personal recipes for the good life.

“There is a lot to learn; you have to Wants “To do this,” says Pickering, whose big dream is to establish a farmers’ cooperative on the island and create an export-quality organic processing facility. “But I really think a lot of women want it — and they can do it, too.”

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