Nothing Like the Sweet Smell Scent of Vanilla
Vanilla is a spice, a perennial plant from the orchid family. This splendid orchid plant was introduced to the Cook Islands in 1942. Vanilla plants thrive in hot-humid tropical climates which makes the Cook Islands ideal conditions. The Cook Islands has a great opportunity to pounce on vanilla production as there is a huge global demand overseas. Vanilla is a money-making crop for a small farmer, a kilogram of these pods can fetch up to $1000 per kilo. In 2017, Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) and Business Trade Investment Board (BTIB) provided a number of funding schemes to encourage local growers and farmers to grow vanilla crops and make use of the Cook Islands Government’s Vanilla Business Support Fund (VELS). It was an initiative to promote the long-term stable supply of high quality, natural vanilla. The VELS funding that started in 2017, will help farmers in Rarotonga increase their revenue and improve vanilla quality with a view to export overseas. Vanilla farming is labor intensive to manage, only a few farmers have taken this up.
The Cook Islands has adequate conditions to grow one of the most profitable spices in the world. Lafala Turepu set up Turepu Vanilla, established in 2017 with an aim to produce a viable export product. The farm harvested their first lot of vanilla beans in 2019 and have harvested every year since then. They have started exporting since December 2020 and are on target, every quarter. Turepu is one of the largest vanilla farms.
Lafala obtains assistance from her family and employees in order to carry out the work and maintenance that is required on the farm. Their vanilla beans start to ripen in April and will harvest for a period of 3-4 months. They average approximately 80-100kgs of green beans per month. The vanilla beans harvest directly correlates with pollinating—if they have a good pollinating season, then it will translate into a good green bean harvest.
Vanilla is part of the orchid family and grows on long vines that wind up trees or tall posts. It takes three to five years after it’s first planted before it starts to produce vanilla pods. Each vanilla plant produces several green, white, or yellow orchids that bloom at different times throughout the growing season and only stay in bloom for about one day. This makes growing vanilla incredibly labor-intensive, requiring constant monitoring so that no orchids are missed in the hand-pollination process.
Lafala Turepu whilst working on the vanilla farm and its operations, is also employed within the Economics and Planning Division of Ministry of Finance & Economic Management as a Microeconomist and Price Tribunal Secretariat. While 2020 presented several challenges, it has also provided some significant highlights both professionally and personally. Professionally – being part of the team responsible for developing the Economic Response Plan and the Economic Development Strategy and also her personal highlight – Exporting shipment of vanilla beans to the USA.