16 Feb 2018

The story of Heilala Vanilla

From Country Life, 9:07 pm on 16 February 2018
Heilala Vanilla ‘Eua Manager Sela Latu pictured with 2017 harvest vanilla beans.

Heilala Vanilla ‘Eua Manager Sela Latu pictured with 2017 harvest vanilla beans. Photo: Heilala Vanilla

Heilala Vanilla is a New Zealand based company which grows vanilla in Tonga. It has 40 vanilla farmers producing for them on the island 'Eua which was right on the path of Cyclone Gita this week. 

While the vanilla pods are still dangling from the mangled vines Heilala's co-founder John Ross says the pods will drop off within a week, leaving those farmers with no vanilla income this season. 

These workers have also lost homes and have a huge mess of large trees to clean up.

Banana and paw paw trees are flattened and root crops destroyed. John Ross says they're sending 20 chainsaws and non perishable food to the islanders in a shipping container but because the boat only leaves twice a month it won't arrive until mid March.

Until then the islanders will be largely clearing up using bush knives. They can "swing them all day and get through a lot of work", but the larger trees can't be cleared away until chainsaws arrive. 

Mr Ross says there are a few chainsaws on the island but most farmers can't afford to buy them.

He says it would be ideal if goods could be air freighted to Tonga but it's too expensive. "Maybe a role for Air New Zealand," he laughs.

Heilala Vanilla says because Tonga is in a cyclone prone area it has crops growing on two islands as an insurance policy. John says it's not usual that both islands would be affected by the same cyclone.

But unfortunately this season their farms on Vava'u had no crop because a wet spring meant no flowers grew.

"There's nothing up here (Vava'u) either, so all around it's a bit of a disaster for us," he said.

Things do grow quickly on Tonga however and he says this time next year the vanilla vines should be producing in full force.

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