Iloa remarked that I wasn’t like the tourists he usually takes on tours around the island. You see, I didn’t ask to buy a part of his land to make into a resort, like at least half of the tourists would. “I won’t sell,” he said. We were looking down at a shallow cove, one of many in Vava’u. It was where he had fished in his youth, to support his family. That particular beach was accessible from Iloa’s farm, where he grew vanilla and other things. Accessible, that is, if one would hazard the steep forested slope.

Sandy cove in Tonga curving at the base of steep forested island slope

How native people lose land sovereignty in underdeveloped countries

The thought did cross my mind. Not to buy the land myself, no. But I did think that one of the little islands near another beach that Paea took me to, would make a good resort spot. But it was a mere fleeting thought, because I was not sure if it would be sustainable.

I don’t mean environmentally sustainable. People often forget that sustainability has three components: economic, environmental, and community. As it is, the local people are self sufficient and farming gives them a good living. But if they sold their land, they could not farm.

And after seeing glimpses of the way of life in Vava’u, it seemed to me that just one conventional resort could mean big changes. The kind of services that would be expected – even just the international menu for the resort’s restaurant – would mean influx of foreign rather than Tongan workers.

But, Iloa added, 99% of the local people would say yes to an offer to lease their land. Even if it’s for a small amount relative to the value of the resort, it’s still a lot of money to them. My heart sank a little bit at that part. It reminded me of my own people, and our own low resistance to the temptation of easy money. We lost a lot of land this way.

Visiting an organic vanilla farm in Vava’u

There weren’t many tours to take if you’re in Vava’u outside of the tourist season. Not that I would have had the cash for it anyway, since the ATMs weren’t working due to an unfortunate submarine cable failure. But I did take up Iloa’s tour offer because it included a visit to his vanilla farm. It reminded me of my time in French Polynesia, which also produces vanilla.

But Iloa did not just grow vanilla on his farm. He grew it along with other tropical crops such as kape and taro, and the way he described it made me suspect it was a farm along permaculture principles. And I wanted to see what permaculture in Tonga looked like.

We passed by these other crops along the way to the vanilla section. There was a whole section of kape, the ridiculously large root carb of the Pacific. Growing among them was kava, another important crop which is made into the beverage that features in Polynesian welcome ceremonies. Taro and the odd pineapple, and breadfruit, for Iloa’s personal consumption. A lone avocado hung like a pendant from a high branch; the tree was a lot taller than I had imagined an avocado tree to be. But, by early February, avocado season was nearly over.

It was not vanilla season either. The vanilla harvest wouldn’t be until several more months, in the southern hemisphere winter. When I arrived, the vanilla orchids were already fruiting on the vine, their green pods growing long. But they would grow larger still.

Professional vanilla farming

The vanilla section was shady. Medium-sized fiki shrubs acted as both shade and climbing host to the vanilla plants. Other climbers were allowed to meander in, and the undergrowth was mostly left alone. I guess Tonga could afford to do this, since it had the great blessing of being without snakes, or venomous anythings.

But the jungly appearance belied the actual work that vanilla farming involves. Compared to the other crops in the farm, vanilla farming is quite personal. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, if you want to maximise your yield. The vines that had begun to drape to the ground should be planted into the soil, to make them grow better. ‘Rooting’ was a year-round activity, said Iloa, and one that he only trusted himself to do correctly.

Vanilla orchids growing among shrubbery

The vines also needed to be scored at its tips, as this encouraged more fruiting points from a single vine. This is done around April. But it is sensitive work, since if you did it wrong, the vanilla plant might die. So this too, he entrusted to no one but himself.

But Iloa does hire labour for his vanilla farming. Not for any other crop; just vanilla because of how labour-intensive it is. He would hire help for the pollination phase, which is done by hand since Tonga does not have insects for natural pollination.

Vanilla pollination required skill, but most of all it required patience. Hasty work led to smaller pods, and you wouldn’t know it until a month or so later, when the pods have begun growing. But the vanilla flower is only open for pollination for 6 hours, after which it will drop off. So you have to be both patient and fast!

Vanilla farming is labour-intensive but lucrative

All of this labour is justified by the high prices that real organic vanilla can fetch. Most Tongan vanilla farmers sold the crop green, and are satisfied with the price. But Iloa cured his vanilla crop first, which raises its value. Not only that, cured vanilla could keep for up to 25 years. It gave him the option of holding the product if prices were not good.

Uncured vanilla has two grades: A and B, distinguished by size. But all cured vanilla is a single grade. “1000 bucks a kilo,” he said. I asked him whether he meant US dollars. Iloa had only been abroad to Australia and New Zealand, and was heavily influenced by the former. “1000 bucks, 500 US dollars,” he replied. He fingered a bunch of vanilla pods to show me. “40 like these is one kilo. If they’re longer, only 30.”

I wondered why not all vanilla farmers cured their crop, given the advantages. Risk, Iloa replied. The farmer takes the risk of the crop spoiling during the process. For example, if they couldn’t keep it dry in case of rains.

You had to blanch the pods to stop the beans growing, and trigger the natural enzyme that causes the vanilla aroma to develop. And then you had to slowly dry them to the right moisture level. Whereas if they sold the vanilla right away, they could clear out the space and do other things.

I looked at Iloa’s vanilla, 500 plants growing amongst the woody shrubs, which in turn grew amongst rambling ground cover. Iloa clearly did not clear this land for other things. His vanilla farming must be different from the others, long-term skilled farming that fostered the orchids themselves rather than treating it as a once-off cash job. And this gave him not just income, but wealth.

Slender green vanilla pods growing from a vine

Can you get rich as a permaculture farmer?

I understood his logic immediately, as he continued explaining his farming philosophy. His fellows may not wish to take on the risk of curing the vanilla crop, but they risked the vanilla prices being unfavourable at a time when they had no choice but to sell. Iloa instead took what seems to me to be the lesser risk, to remove his risk of selling at an unprofitable time.

He could do this, precisely because he wasn’t only farming vanilla. In other words, he had additional income streams from other crops, and didn’t need to sell the vanilla for cash flow. He also had kava, which – despite its 3-year maturation period – was also lucrative these days. There was demand from as far away as China, France, and Germany, although he could not quite tell me why. The previous year, he sold his kava crop for ‘300,000 bucks’. Which I guess equates to about USD150,000.

And if he should need cash while the kava was not yet done? That’s what the kape was for, and to a lesser extent, the ginger. There was always demand for kape; all he had to do was look up the prices on his phone and make the sale. Meanwhile, he could simply leave them growing in the ground until he needed to liquidate the crop; it would never spoil.

Permaculture for economic (not just environmental) sustainability

I did some quick calculations in my head and realised, a farmer in Tonga was pulling more money than many professionals. And he did not even need that much land to do it with. We walked it all in a few hours.

I saw from this a really interesting dimension of permaculture I had not considered before. Iloa treated his crops as if they were different asset types, choosing what to sell when, much like a person with financial assets would choose for her stocks and investments. Permaculture, when intentionally planned for economic resilience, is deeply empowering to the farmer.

Officials from the government visit his farm every now and then, he told me. I cracked an inward smile. My country has exactly this concept, the ‘learning visits’, or lawatan sambil belajar. Which sounded all nice and good, except that it didn’t often result in actual replication. And sure enough, Iloa was mystified as to why he couldn’t persuade more farmers to follow suit even after seeing the results.

It was a familiar story. People tended to plant one crop, whichever that happened to be profitable right now, as much as possible. And when it was no longer profitable, they moved to the next one in fashion. Like an agricultural gold rush.

Through it all, permaculture farmers like Iloa spend nothing on chemicals, minimally on machinery, employ some people sometimes, and rack up no debt whatsoever. And they earn a stable, diversified income just like the city folk do. Or maybe even more.

Immature vanilla pods growing in a Tongan farm

I didn’t realise how financially stable you could be as a small permaculture farmer! Did it surprise you too? Pin for inspiration & share!

Pinterest image for an article on organic permaculture vanilla farming in Tonga

No feed found with the ID 2. Go to the All Feeds page and select an ID from an existing feed.

15 Responses

  1. Organic enthusiast says:

    Hi Teja, this is such an inspiring and eye opening article. Thank you for giving true organic Tonga farmers a voice. We need more of these kind of farmers especially in attracting young people who see agriculture these days as labour-intensive with little return.

    • Teja says:

      You’re very welcome! I knew I had to write it as soon as I realised that Iloa was making serious and reliable cash! And it was because he was using the same logic as finance asset managers, except for farming.

      I think the takeaway for me was that agriculture is labour intensive if you treat it like a gold rush, or to “maximise” output, because then you’re clearing land, rushing to plant whatever the crop in vogue is, rushing the crop to grow ASAP, rushing to harvest, rushing to market, while everyone else is doing the same and therefore you’re competing against your own neighbours, and then clear the whole land, fix it with fertilisers or whatever ASAP because you had previously stripped it, then start all over again. But if you treat it as cultivation, allowing a managed ecosystem with diversified crops to do most of that “labour”, then it seems not as labour intensive. And maybe the returns might not be “maximised” in the short term, but it seems pretty good and importantly, more stable.

  2. Catherine says:

    I didn’t have vanilla farms on my radar until reading your post. Very interesting article and now I will make a point to visit one in the future!

    • Teja says:

      Right? I enjoy these random things you discover when you visit places without rigid plans :) I liked this tour because his vanilla farm isn’t just a vanilla farm. There’s a logic to his farming that’s very deliberate and not just to get quick bucks from the land. I liked the revelation that farming doesn’t have to be large scale or high intensity to be a lucrative profession.

  3. Krista says:

    I have never read anything about vanilla farms before so this was so interesting for me to read! Your posts are always so informative – thanks for sharing!

    • Teja says:

      Thank you so much! I didn’t expect to visit a vanilla farm to be honest, but I couldn’t say no when offered the opportunity. I especially liked the part about how much knowledge and discipline and having the right mindset about growing makes a difference to what you can earn.

  4. Loved reading your post. I have been to Vanilla farm in Seychelles, and I loved the fragrance as soon as I entered the farm. The fragrance is heavenly.

    • Teja says:

      Wow! The vanilla wasn’t ripe yet when I visited in Tonga. I imagine in the tourist season this organic farm tour would probably be a better experience for those sensations.

  5. Loved reading your post. I have been to Vanilla farm in Seychelles and loved the heavenly fragrance as soon as I entered the farm.

  6. What a fascinating insight into farming on a tropical island. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. Alma says:

    So interesting! We’ve been to vanilla plantations in Madagascar and know how intensive vanilla farming can be, but this gives me a new insight into the crop.

    • Teja says:

      One risk I can think of is climate change, though. His permaculture cropping relies on some degree of predictability in rain pattern in Vava’u. I saw recently that Madagascar is undergoing a famine right now because of droughts; saving agriculture there would now require some engineered intervention to secure water predictability, I imagine.

  8. Sue says:

    This is really interesting. I didn’t realise before quite how intensive vanilla farming was. It sounds like a real labour of love & obviously pays off in the amount of money they can earn from a relatively small crop. Thanks for sharing – opened my eyes!

    • Teja says:

      Indeed! It really turns around conventional notions on what is and isn’t a ‘lucrative’ profession! I got the sense, however, that his peers didn’t expend as much love or labour, nor do they diversify their agriculture as he does, and consequently earnings are more volatile as we’re used to assuming for cash croppers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.