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. That particular beach was accessible from Iloa’s farm, where he farmed vanilla and other things. Accessible, that is, if one would hazard the steep forested slope.

That was where he had fished in his youth, to support his family.

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

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. 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 menu for the resort’s restaurant – would mean influx of foreign rather than Tongan workers. As it is, the local people are self sufficient and farming gives them a good living.

But, Iloa added, 99% of the local people would say yes to an offer to lease their land. Even if it’s small 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. 

Visiting a 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 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 summer. 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 was done around April. But it was 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 was 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. This is actually not that easy, since the vanilla flower is only open for pollination for 6 hours, after which it will drop off!

Labour-intensive but lucrative

All of this labour is justified by the high prices that real, organic vanilla could fetch. Most vanilla farmers sold the crop green, and are satisfied with the prices. 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.”

Slender green vanilla pods growing from a vine

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. For example, if they couldn’t keep it dry in case of rains. You had to blanch it 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.

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 these days, although he could not quite tell me why. The previous year, he had 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 sustainability, not just environmental

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.

Immature vanilla pods growing in a Tongan farm

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.

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 better.

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

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13 Responses

  1. 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.

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