There are several styles of vanilla growing in Tahiti. There are traditional family plantations of several hectares or less, where the entire family cares for the vanilla, from planting vines, to pollinating orchids, harvesting and drying the beans, and boxing them for sale. Other traditional farmers simply grow the vanilla, then sell their harvested green beans to specialists who dry and sell beans. The newer shade-house plantations are compact, time-saving ventures where fewer workers are required to manage the entire production cycle. And finally, you’ll frequently see vanilla vines in family gardens where they’re planted as decoration and as a kitchen crop.
Vanilla growers include native Tahitian families, the Chinese who came to the Islands in the early 20th century, and the French who, because Tahiti is a French colony, have dual citizenship. The following three profiles offer a glimpse of the people who make up the industry in Tahiti. All three people are passionate about their work and are actively working to preserve the tradition of vanilla in their beloved islands.
Michel Grisoni is a French biologist whose career is dedicated to keeping vanilla healthy. Michel is a virologist who, before coming to Tahiti, worked with Bourbon vanilla in Reunion for many years. As Tahitian vanilla is so very different, it has opened up a whole new avenue of study for him. He loves Tahiti, and hopes to remain on Raiatea. His area of research is invaluable in the islands, where mosaic virus can be a serious problem.
Until my visit to Tahiti, I didn’t know for sure whether Vanilla tahitensis was created in the Society islands or if it was brought from outside. I learned from both Michel and Madame Jeanne Chan (whom you will meet later in this story) that the “Tahiti” vanilla vines actually arrived from the Philippines in 1848 with Admiral Ferdinand Hamelin on the frigate La Virginie. Once in Tahiti, the vanilla was further cross-bred until now there are five distinct varieties of Tahitian vanilla. While this solves part of the mystery, I’m still curious to know when and where it was first cross-bred, and whether it was intentional or not. It sounds like a trip to the Philippines is on my agenda.
Meeting Michel was a bit of serendipity. While I was waiting for my ride in downtown Uturoa, I struck up a conversation with a Brazilian woman who sells Tahitian pearls. When she learned of my work in vanilla, she said, “You must meet my husband.” I cancelled my plans and late that afternoon we rode her motorbike to her home to meet her husband and family. She was absolutely right. The three of us spent the entire evening discussing vanilla growing around the world while kids and cats ran in and out of the room to check on us.
A few days later Michel arranged a visit to the Raiatea government agricultural facility so I could see firsthand their work and experiments to strengthen Island vanilla. Our tour began at Hanoa Plantation, which sits up from the highway on a verdant strip of land studded with palms, bananas and hardwoods. Bordering the facility is a technical high school where students learn basic farm management and how to cultivate bananas, pineapple, papaya, vanilla, taro, sugar cane and other crops. As school was not in session, the plants were joyfully going wild in the warm, rainy weather. On the government side, the crops were uniformly planted and carefully maintained, giving this vast tract of land an amusing, contrasting appearance of two disparate possibilities.
The government ministry of agriculture is aware of the need to increase production of Tahitian vanilla, as demand is far greater than supply. They are experimenting with plants, compost, and methods of shade-house production to improve both quality and quantity. The best density of plants, compost, and virus control are of great interest to the researchers.
Currently there are several 1000 meter long shade-houses, each containing 400 supports for the plants. Some of the supports are made of concrete and others are of wood. They don’t have the chemicals available to protect the wood from rot so it’s uncertain how long the wood supports will last. This is an experiment in itself as all the materials for their work come from France. Over the next few years they will determine the most cost-effective way for growing shade-house vanilla.
Compost for the vanilla plants is made from coconut husks, wood chips, garden greens, and sugar cane (which feeds the bacteria). The compost is produced on-site and is ready in less than three months. The base in which the supports are sunk holds the compost.
During periods of heavy rain, water collects around the plants and triggers fungus, causing deformed flowers. Workers pick off fungus-infected leaves and vines. Because Tahitian vanilla has a high moisture content, it is naturally susceptible to virus, even when grown in optimal conditions. “One thing we are studying is whether vanilla grown in such close quarters suffers from many more viruses than vanilla that grows on traditional plantations,” says Michel. “If so, we need to learn ways to combat this.”
One advantage of shade-house production is that plants are more protected from the cold than on traditional plantations. This is a consideration as Tahitian vanilla dies when the temperature drops below 14 degrees C (60 degrees F), whereas Vanilla Planifolia isn’t in serious danger unless the temperatures fall below 4 degrees C (40 degrees F).
Varieties of Tahitian Vanilla
As we walked through the shade-houses, Michel educated me on the five varieties of Tahitian vanilla. In addition to a difference in flavor and fragrance, all Tahitian vanilla vines and orchids look very different from the Mexican and Bourbon. The leaves are longer, narrower and have sharper points than planifolia leaves. The orchids are whiter and the petals are more slender and open. All Tahitian vanilla is very low in natural vanillin — from .02 to 1.8 vanillin content, but high in heliotropin–the key component that gives it a floral fragrance and fruity taste.
Four of the five varieties of Tahitian vanilla were developed in Tahiti. Tahiti, the original variety from the Philippines, is small and fragrant. Haapape, the most commonly grown variety in the islands, has a bigger bean and a distinctly floral aroma. “You can tell Haapape vanilla from the others, as the leaves have a groove down the center. I can’t tell the beans apart when they’re off the vine — only while they’re growing.” Michael shows me the distinguishing groove.
“Rea Rea, which means yellow, is the most fragrant of the Tahitian vanillas. It flowers later in the season than the other varieties. It’s called Rea Rea because the pods turn yellow after three months, but they aren’t mature until ten months after flowering. The pods will darken like other vanilla when they are ripe.” Although all the rest of the island vanilla had flowered, the Rea Rea was still flowering on Raiatea. It’s a vigorous plant with good flavor and taste.
The two least important varieties are Potati and Parahurahu. Potati grows in a slightly irregular shape and isn’t particularly good commercially. Parahurahu has unusually long leaves and very large pods, but it also isn’t a useful commercial variety of vanilla.
Michel next took me to an area where at least 100 small plants were grouped together. At first I didn’t recognize them as vanilla. They looked more like small cuttings of a decorative vine. “This is what vanilla grown in vitro looks like,” Michel explained. “In vitro literally means ‘in glass.’ Until fairly recently it was extremely difficult to grow vanilla from seeds, and even now it takes a very long time for the plants to develop enough to produce.” I asked if this is how Tahitian vanilla has gotten to other countries. “Absolutely,” he confirmed. “The French government has had a ban on vanilla vines leaving Tahiti, so people start the vanilla from the seeds inside the beans which, of course, they cannot ban.”
As we entered the shade-houses, Michel introduced me to Georges Brotherson, Director of the Rural Development Department in Raiatea and a technician with the agricultural department. As the government invests more money into vanilla production, Huahine, Raiatea and Tahaa each have their own technician. George has been in vanilla his entire life and is both knowledgeable and dedicated to his work. He gave me a lesson in pollinating the orchids. In order to pollinate 1500 — 2000 flowers a day, you have to be a lot more adept than I!
A Traditional Plantation
After touring the agricultural facility, we headed into the mountains to a traditional plantation. Rain squalls were blowing across the island as we started up a mud-slicked road filled with pot holes and under water in places. After a couple of attempts — each followed by backing up the truck and trying again — we finally forged a stream and made it up the mountain. Lush foliage hugged the sides of the road until we came around a bend near the end of the road. There, in a semi-cleared area, were tutor trees with vanilla vines wound loosely around them. Michel approached the woman of the house. Dogs jostled around his knees. She was apprehensive, said her husband wasn’t there, and told us we couldn’t stay. After a brief stand-off, her husband and son climbed up from a mist-shrouded ravine and waved hello. Like any farmer proud of the fruits of his labor, he welcomed us immediately and offered to take us on a tour.
Unlike the tutor trees in Mexico, these trees were cut off at about two meters (six-and-a-half feet). The vines were looped several times around the tutors, making them accessible for pollinating and picking. The tutors went down the side of the mountain toward a ravine. Plants were composted with humus and wood chips, assuring a healthy and ample crop. When we returned to the compound, the farmer and his son brought out their beans, which were still drying, and we talked vanilla a little longer. I invited his wife to join us for a photo, but she was too shy. She finally asked me into her kitchen where she and her daughter were preparing the midday meal. As I felt so often in Tahiti, I was frustrated by my lack of French. I wanted to ask her about the herbs and leaves on her table and how she used them, if she used vanilla in the meals she prepared, if she and her husband were from families that had grown vanilla. Instead, we smiled and gestured and I used my painfully limited French to thank her for her hospitality.
On our return trip, Michel and I talked about the upcoming world symposium on vanilla, now in its early planning stage. We talked of the need for a world organization for vanilla growers. We talked about viruses and I amazed him when I explained that there is an aphid that attacks the Mexican vanilla. He made me promise to send him some aphids in alcohol when I next returned to Mexico. It was a pleasure to be with someone so devoted to learning every detail about vanilla, grasping each thread of information he can obtain so that he can find remedies for the diseases that plague this beautiful plant.
Alain Abel, Michel Bissal and Yannick Wong are three young entrepreneurs with both day jobs and an enterprise that they hope will someday be their full-time endeavor. La Vanillere, is a modern vanilla plantation in Raiatea. Situated in a breathtaking, rain-swept valley with massive volcanic outcroppings as a backdrop, La Vanillere sits on a knoll with a view of the water in the distance. After purchasing the land, the men gathered vanilla vines growing behind their property in the mountains and established their plantation. Probably abandoned from an earlier venture, the wild vanilla was hearty and well adapted to the local environment.
La Vanillere now has four large green houses. The plants grow in long, narrow beds bordered with cement, with gravel walkways for drainage. Instead of using tutor trees or cement posts, they have created tutors from compost wrapped with chicken-wire and shaped into poles. The tutors stand 6-1/2 feet high and the aerial roots grow into the compost tutors. The green houses are covered with shade cloth and house about four hundred plants each. There is abundant year-round rainfall on Raiatea, but when the weather is hot and dry they use an overhead misting system.
The first orchids appear within 14 months of planting. Because of the compost tutors, the vanilla feeds off the compost as it grows. As a result they have unusually thick vines, and the orchids bloom far earlier than on a traditional plantation where it can take up to three years for the first flowers. Because of the proximity of the plants, they can pollinate 2,000-3,000 plants a day.
In Tahiti, beans are harvested when they are deep yellow or brown. This is almost always exactly nine months after the orchids are pollinated. If beans fall off the vines early, they are placed in the shade to rest until they are brown. Once the beans turn brown, they are washed, then placed on fabric in the sun from 9:00 am till noon. The beans are then wrapped up and allowed to sweat for the rest of the day and night.
The drying process for Tahitian vanilla is shorter than with planifolia. The small beans will be dry in two weeks while the bigger beans take up to a month. During the drying process, each bean is massaged a minimum of 15 times. In the old days, families sat around after dinner and visited while they massaged each bean. When the beans are adequately dried, they are brought into a room with a multi-tiered set of wire drying racks. They’re placed on shelves, sorted by length, and allowed to rest until they are ready for market.
The first harvest at La Vanillere was 200 kilos. The men anticipate harvesting a few tons from each green house once the vines are mature, with each plant producing several kilos of green beans. While this may sound like a lot, remember, the beans will lose more than 60% of their weight in the drying process. The goal of La Vanillere is for a small, high-end crop. And, although their initial investment was considerable, shade-house vanilla is far less labor-intensive and provides a far higher yield than traditional plantations.
While I thought I’d be the one with the most questions, in fact, the men were bursting with questions about vanilla around the world. We sat in the living room of their house, with its sweeping panoramic view of the lush countryside and the Opoa Hotopuu Bay in the distance, drinking French wine and talking about vanilla. Yannick is the president of the local bank in Uturoa. He manages the accounts for La Vanillere and wanted more information about selling beans. Michel and Alain were interested in the details of growing and production and how vanilla is grown elsewhere in the world. Their English was good, but when we struggled for words, we had Joe from Le Tepua to rescue us.
The three men represent a growing shift in the way vanilla is grown in Tahiti. Yannick’s family has been in Tahiti for several generations and, as a banker, he’s interested in Tahiti’s economic future. Michel and Alain are originally from France, and represent a growing group of Europeans interested in ecologically sound, organic products. With a modern, ecologically-conscious perspective and a grounded, pragmatic approach, they should do well.
You can visit La Vanillere on Raiatea. There are brochures in most hotels, or stop by the bank in Uturoa and ask for Yannick Wong. Allow extra time to visit the nearby Marae de Taputapuatea, the largest marae on Raiatea and one of the oldest in the Islands.
Meeting Madame Chane was a real treat. I had heard of her before coming to the Islands and, as it turns out, Sylvien Jones is related to Jeanne Chan, so she made the arrangements for us to meet when I arrived in Raiatea. Although Madame Chane speaks some English, she prefers to converse in French, so I arranged for a translator.
Madame Chane’s name made me think of a James Bond movie. I envisioned an elegant and imposing Asian woman, a dragon-lady as adept at martial arts as vanilla. In fact, Madame Chane is soft-spoken and slightly shy, and in a local mama dress, she looked like a shopkeeper and grandmother, not like the woman who runs the Tahitian vanilla industry. Appearances aside, Madame Chane is probably the single most powerful person in the Tahitian vanilla trade. She knows the business inside out, sets the prices and negotiates vanilla futures. As she says quite truthfully, “I’ve been in the vanilla business my entire life.”
Jeanne’s grandfather, Chan Woun Kim, and eleven other men sailed to the Society Islands in a small boat in 1918, leaving their families behind in a tiny village in Canton Province. It was a six-month journey traveling via Australia. They first settled in Papeete, but after two months Chan Woun Kim came to Raiatea and later to Tahaa. He established a small market to provide a year-round cash stream, then started buying green vanilla and drying it. The Chinese community was small and tight-knit, and the men shared their secrets and discoveries about the vanilla they were cultivating and drying. Jeanne’s grandfather worked hard for six years before saving enough money to send for his wife and 24-year old son, Chan Fook Wan. The son was pre-destined for the vanilla business. His father bought land in Tahaa and became a grower; Wan Fook cured, dried, and sold the beans. He married the daughter of another immigrant family and continued building his father’s vanilla dynasty.
Jeanne was the seventh in a family of eleven children. She remembers as a two year-old child holding her mother’s hand as they crossed the threshold of their family business in downtown Uturoa for the first time, the same store where she does business today. It was as if she arrived at the tender age of two and never left. “I lived vanilla right up to today,” says Jeanne.
Chan Fook Wan bought from many growers on Raiatea and Tahaa. The green vanilla arrived in big flour sacks. All the children worked in the family business from the time they turned five. The children sorted the black beans (which they referred to as “chocolate”) from the green. If they were black, they rinsed them in water and put them into the sun to dry. If they were green, they put them into a big box to cure until they turned black. “Another of our tasks was to massage each vanilla bean every day. We all did it, and we visited with each other after dinner while we made the vanilla beautiful.”
The children were paid five francs a day for their work. It served as pocket money for them, but was also designed to teach them that when you work you earn money and buy what you need with it. It created a strong work ethic in the children, an ethic which Jeanne credits as the reason she has done well.
Jeanne attended Chinese school for five years in addition to attending regular school and working with her family. When she was twenty, she assumed responsibility of the family business, buying the green beans, overseeing the drying, and selling them to the big buyers who came to the Islands looking for vanilla. She never married. “Why should I marry?” she says. “I had my own money. I didn’t need a man to take care of me.” She remembers in 1959, twenty tons of green vanilla came through their business. “It was a mountain of vanilla. We never hired workers from outside the family — everyone worked. No matter how much time it took, there we were, working!” Despite the hard work and long hours, Jeanne Chane achieved a great level of independence and satisfaction in carving out an important niche for herself in vanilla.
Jeanne is the only family member in her generation still in vanilla, and none of the younger generation has chosen vanilla as a livelihood. “There is much less emphasis on vanilla in the islands now. The young people don’t want to grow it, as it’s hard work. They would rather grow noni, as it’s a fast cash crop and much less complicated. When you ask them about growing vanilla, they ask you back!” Jeanne laments that the focus now in the islands is on noni and black pearls. She says, “the beast to go after” is the vanilla, as it is a food product. Her nieces and nephews disagree. “They tell you that growing vanilla is boring.”
Jeanne persists in her work. She shows me the cement slabs she inherited from her grandfather, a symbol and reminder of the continuity of her family’s livelihood, created on an island so very different from the land of her ancestors. But life sometimes has a way of drawing us back to our ancestral roots.
“Do you know, a delegation of eight people came here from Hainan to beg me to go to China to help them grow Tahitian vanilla? They told me they will treat me like royalty to help them. I am already the queen here and so I must be the queen there as well.
“I didn’t say no to them. I said I would go with them but I would not be able to help them. Think about it. If I go there I will help make the vanilla of Tahiti go under, as it is cheap there. There are six generations of my family in vanilla. If I go I will pull the carpet out from under them. I will not become Judas!”
Despite her unwillingness to assist the Chinese, Jeanne’s face lights up as she tells the story. She’s proud of the attention and acknowledgement of her skill and experience, as well she should be–she’s made it in a world dominated by men.
Despite her stature in the industry and her considerable financial success, Jeanne Chane continues to live simply and frugally. Born during the Great Depression, of a family who worked hard for a living, she has not forgotten her humble origins. Regardless, she’s quick to say, “I am more than the Queen of the vanilla, I am the Empress. No one has lived vanilla as I have. I must be the Empress.” As the “lowly” Vanilla Queen, I agree with her completely. When it comes to knowledge, hard work and experience, she deserves the title hands down!