On The Farm: A Day in the Life of a Vanilla Farmer
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n the months of April and May, the nights on Kauai begin to warm (from lower 60’s to lower 70’s) and our Makahiki season (Hawaiian winter) draws to a close. As the days increase in length our vanilla vines begin to show small buds (photo of bud), these buds turn into flower clusters (called racemes), and the elusive vanilla orchid bursts forth from them. Thus begins a period of some of the most focused activity here on the farm: vanilla pollination season.
And good thing we grow coffee here on the farm, because vanilla is best pollinated early in the morning. The vanilla orchid has a window of 24-36 hours or fertility. This means that the earlier in the day it is pollinated the more pollen is transferred. And since the vanilla bean is filled with thousands very small seeds (true vanilla) and each seed is the result of one successful pollen grain transferred: the better the pollination the bigger the bean is. Of all the handwork done in agriculture, I can’t think of a single move more important that vanilla pollination.
The anther cap which contains the pollen (male) is separated from the sticky stigmatic surface which receives the pollen (female) by a small flap called the rostellum. We use a small pick to lift this rostellum and give a gentle squeeze down on the anther cap to ‘self’ each orchid.
If the pollen transfer is successful then the flower stays attached and shrinks while the seed pod begins to grow and lengthen into what will be next year’s vanilla crop.
We are pollinating on the tour for the next month, come join us on the farm and see how our vanilla process works when you’re on the island! And let your friends who are visiting Kauai know as well, there are a very few places you can learn about this crop without a passport, and we are happy to share.