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Informal gardeners group get a taste of vanilla farming

Nestled in the cool hills of Vaoala is a quarter acre vanilla farm carefully managed and nurtured by Shelly Burich with much love and care.

Vaoala Vanilla farm was the site last Saturday for the monthly farm and garden visit by the Informal Gardeners Group (I.G.G.), a group of like-minded individuals keen to share knowledge on farming and home gardening and a passion for growing crops and ornamentals for home beautification and beautiful green scenery. 

Ms. Burich vanilla crop surrounds her beautiful home allowing her easy access to tend to her vanilla crop, when she’s off from her full time job as C.E.O. for the Samoa Cancer Society. 

 “I started growing vanilla as a hobby back in 2008 and as the plants got bigger I searched for information to help me understand the nature of this plant and how to grow it,” started Ms. Burich on the front lawn of her home and to welcome 30 plus IGG members braving light showers and eager to learn all about production of this spice plant. 

Vanilla, a member of the Orchidaceae plant family, is a climbing vine and needs a support tree to provide shade and to support the vines. Vanilla plants favour humid conditions in bright sunny areas but not direct sunlight. The soil needs to be free draining and with organic cover, usually coconut husks and compost to feed the vines.

The I.G.G. participants plus some S.T.E.C. staff and Board members learned vanilla takes up to five years to mature and produce flowers. Then you have to hand pollinate the flowers, which might or might not produce beans, and then wait nine months before the beans are ready to harvest.

The only way to ensure flowers produce beans is to hand pollinate when the flowers open in the morning hours.

There are, as yet no insects or bees found in Samoa that can do this laborious work naturally, a delicate operation involving opening each flower then physically placing the male pollen on to the female stigma, close the flower again, and if successful a pod will appear in a few days.

 “It’s painstaking work, a labour of love,” impressed Ms. Burich to I.G.G. members in awe and full of admiration for the persistence of this part-time woman farmer. 

She explained other growing tips as took enthused IGG members and STEC staff for a walkabout through the vanilla farm and responding to queries from the visitors. 

As observed, the vanilla vines are continuously looped on the support trees Glyricidia (tamaligi palagi) or the less prefered Atophthora, the pafiki tree. Most vines had two to four bean clusters with each cluster bearing 8-10 beans. It is recommended to keep to 10 beans per cluster to allow for good yields and bean size.

Ms. Burich continued, “There is more work to be carried out after the beans are harvested once the tips have turned a shade of yellow.”

After picking the beans, sweating and curing processes takes a little over a month before the beans are ready for the market. This is when the beans turn dark brown and leathery.

Sweating involves wrapping the vanilla beans in a blanket or towel for 36-48 hours, and the beans turn a shade of light brown. The sweating process is followed by curing of the beans through sun drying for up to a month. Both processes are to get the beans to loose water and allow concentration of vanillin essence and oil to build up.

 “At curing stage I usually massage the beans to further concentrate the vanillin essence. At the moment world market price for dried vanilla beans ranges between US$70 to US$100 per kilo, with Madagascar the biggest producer of vanilla.”

There was very little incidence of pests and diseases evident except signs of a leaf spot fungal disease on the leaves, and the giant African snails which were very visible.

Natural disaster is always a concern such as Cyclone Evans in 2012 laying waste to half of the vanilla plants. But resilient Shelly bounced back, gathered up the vines off the ground and nurtured them back to production. 

Ms. Burich pointed out that her farm is certified organic, and if more families go into vanilla farming, she could help them with processing the beans at a central location to ensure a handle on consistent quality.

Vanilla farming and exporting is a lucrative venture but is labour intensive and Ms. Burich is encouraging other women with small plots of land to consider going into vanilla farming to diversify their incomes.

The Samoa government has established a Vanilla Council to help develop this crop into a thriving industry and contribute to growing exports. The Council is working closely with other smallholder vanilla farms as well as the Samoa Trust Estate Corporation (STEC), which grows vanilla on a much larger scale.

Ms. Burich floated the idea of including Vaoala Vanilla as part of a larger agri-toursim venture if tourism continues to grow.

Overseas and local tourists would through such ventures be exposed to the operations that families in Samoa are involved with in the growing and processing of this important spice crop as a cottage industry providing employment and income.

At the end of the tour, the group were invited to light refreshments prepared by Ms. Burich’s children and grandchildren. Vanilla flavoured muffins and hot spiced fresh coffee were enjoyed by all. 

Vaoala Vanilla now offer vanilla products on sale and currently includes packets of dried vanilla pods and bottles of vanilla essence, which were on sale at Ms. Burich’s home.

It was indeed a very rewarding field exercise and outing for I.G.G. members to learn about a  new crop to consider for backyard or commercial farming. 

The I.G.G. group was established in 2013 and is coordinated by Seumanutafa Dr. Malcolm Hazelman.  Those with an interest in agriculture, horticulture and  gardening  can request to join by visiting the Informal Gardeners Group facebook page.

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