The Reddekopp family runs the Hawaiian Vanilla Company on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
Minh & Wass
Reddekopp eventually learned about Tom Kadooka, a Kona orchid grower who had been experimenting with vanilla for decades. Kadooka shared his insights, and now Reddekopp's Hawaiian Vanilla Company is the only commercial vanilla operation in the United States, raising 10,000 vanilla plants in greenhouse facilities. The greenhouses are near a century-old yellow wood-frame building where the family hosts lunches featuring dishes that incorporate vanilla, from hummus to pumpkin soup.
At first glance, the economics of Hawaiian vanilla look appealing. A pound can cost $200 wholesale, and 1 acre's worth is equal to 20 acres of coffee. But making a pound of vanilla takes 100 beans, which must be handpicked. The vanilla plant, a twisting Little Shop of Horrors-style vine with dangling finger-like seedpods, flowers only one day a year and then for only a few hours.
So Reddekopp can't afford to rely on random pollination by bees. Instead, each of the ephemeral, celadon-hued blossoms is hand-pollinated, a delicate task done either with the tip of a fingernail or a slender bamboo pick. Reddekopp; his wife, Tracy; and their three oldest children do much of the pollinating themselves, with other workers helping out during the busiest times.
"Vanilla is the most labor-intensive crop in the world," Reddekopp says. "You have to have some emotion to make it work and the passion to do it right. When we bring people to work in this operation, we're bringing in their whole lives. Their joys, their sorrows, and their hopes."
South from Pa'auilo, State 19/Mamalahoa Highway slithers in and out of steep gullies dense with jungle vegetation. Turning off at Kolekole Beach Park, I discover that the view from the road barely reveals the primeval beauty of this side of the island: Eden-like in spots but with swinging thunbergia vines and tangled stands of albizia and wild guava, chaotic and ominous in their disarray.
Lesley Hill and Michael Crowell bought a onetime sugarcane plantation on the edge of this jungle. If the sugarcane business was dead, this was its corpse: rutted, beaten land with the stench of crushed, fermenting cane. "We couldn't find a single earthworm," Hill says. "In places, the topsoil had been scooped off and all that was left was hardpan. The erosion on the island is unbelievable. We had to save this land from running down to the ocean."
After years of loving rehabilitation, it's productive land again. Views extend from Mauna Kea to the Pacific, and while some areas feature orderly plantings, the sheer abundance gives the farm an almost feral quality. Near its open-air Balinese-style structures grows a huge range of fruits, from Meyer lemons to durian, a spiky, basketball-size Southeast Asian fruit equally renowned for its custardy flavor on the tongue and its gag-inducing odor to the nose. The farm's main crop, however, is hearts of palm. Following successful trials with bactris, a spineless palm native to Central and South America, the couple planted 35,000 seeds.
My exposure to hearts of palm has been limited to canned stuff so underwhelming in flavor and texture that a big whiff of durian would seem a welcome antidote to its blandness.
Machete in hand, Crowell goes to a palm and hacks off a section. He keeps thwacking and whacking until he removes the stem's sheath, revealing the pristine white heart.
"Vegetable ivory," he declares.
I bite in and the palm crunches sharply, releasing a mildly sweet flavor. Even tastier is the section of young leaves, translucent white tissue that unfurls like a scroll.
Crowell and Hill's Wailea Agricultural Group regularly sells hundreds of pounds of hearts of palm a week, which prompts the question of just who is buying this stuff. With Hawaiian restaurants featuring regional cuisine, there's certainly a local market. But the Islands remain the most isolated inhabited place on Earth.
Welcome to the age of express shipping: The farm takes individual orders for freshly cut hearts of palm from chefs all over the mainland and can have them delivered within two days. "Yeah, it's pretty remarkable," Crowell says. "I'll be thinking, 'You guys are in Chicago or New York and we're in the jungle, all the way out here on a corner of the Polynesian Triangle.' "
Big Island, small world.
More: Enjoying the bounty