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NZ’s first ever vanilla harvest underway

Media release harvest – 1
October 2009

NZ’s first ever vanilla harvest underway

They said it couldn’t be grown in New Zealand. And now a Tauranga company has proved the cynics wrong.

It’s the world’s first vanilla harvest grown outside of the tropics and it’s currently underway in the Bay of Plenty.

For independent, family owned (and run) Heilala Vanilla, it is the culmination of a dream stretching back five years.

Heilala Vanilla is a product of the Reunion Food company. Owners and New Zealand nationals John Ross, daughter Jennifer Boggiss and her husband Garth Boggiss founded their business as an aid project in Tonga.

The Tauranga operation was established primarily as an R&D site they could access 24/7 when not in the islands. Now they are harvesting the world’s first organically-grown vanilla outside the tropics.

Typically vanilla is grown only in countries that fall in to a narrow 20 degree band either side of the equator. It is a commodity, typically traded like oil or gold.

However, the Heilala Vanilla operation is the first to control the entire food chain – from growing through drying to manufacturing and marketing value-added products.

For Garth Boggiss it has been a long and testing road to producing vanilla in New Zealand.

“Our Tongan operation has provided us with the knowledge for growing vanilla the year round,” he says. “In New Zealand, we duplicated the key characteristics of the climate in our Tongan shade house and designed and built a computer controlled plastic house that emulates this environment.

“In fact we have optimised the environment based on our research into the requirements of the vanilla plant and the results have been fantastic.”

Heilala Vanilla was meticulous in its duplication of Tongan conditions right down to matching the soil and introducing computer-controlled humidity and heating using geo-thermal hot water.

“Volcanic vanilla,” says Garth, “using renewable resources. Only in New Zealand.”

Vanilla is the only fruit-bearing member of the orchid family. The large orchid plants bear a small creamy / yellow flower and on the day of opening the flower must be hand pollinated.

Around nine months later a fully grown green bean is ready. This green bean then undergoes a complex drying and curing process where the flavour develops and the pod turns dark brown-black. It is the most labour intensive agricultural product in the world.

Heilala Vanilla is premium quality and organically grown. It will take approximately three months to harvest the 600 vanilla plants at the Tauranga facility.

Tongan production is already exported to Australia, Singapore and Malaysia and Reunion is about to finalise distribution in the UK and California. There is also interest from Japan.

It is renowned among chefs both in New Zealand and overseas. Heilala Vanilla products feature on menus prepared by Peter Gordon in the UK and Jason Dell, formerly of Blanket Bay Lodge now in Singapore heading the Nautilus project.

It is also a staple in highly rated restaurants The European, Cutler and Co, Jonahs and Aqua Dining in Melbourne and Sydney and The French Café and Antoine’s in Auckland.


For recipes, please go to


Backgrounder heilala – 1
October 2009

& Reunion Food Company

Reunion Food Company produces the Heilala Vanilla brand from business locations in Vava’u, Tonga and Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty province in New Zealand.

Heilala Vanilla began in 2003 as an aid project to assist a village in one of the most beautiful and remote places on the globe, Vava'u Islands, Kingdom of Tonga.

Reunion Food Company principals John Ross, his daughter Jennifer and her husband Garth Boggiss, fell in love with the people and the environment in Vava’u and using their horticultural background and research facilities in Tauranga, the trio established a vanilla plantation.

John Ross says it was designed as a partnership of people, united by a passion for the world’s most sensual and exotic flavour and aroma.

The business
Reunion Foods was founded in 2005 specifically to grow, harvest, package and market vanilla products. It is the first and only company globally that is both a grower and marketer of vanilla as typically it is traded as a commodity.

Heilala Vanilla sales have again tripled in this current year as Reunion now exports to Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. Currently (Sept. ’09) it is finalising distribution deals in the UK and California and is investigating enquiries from Japan.

As a food
Heilala Vanilla is now recognised in global markets by super chefs and foodies alike as a product grown under organic and fair trade practices. It is the only vanilla supplied direct from plantation to pantry so its entire food chain is traceable.

Offshore chefs using Heilala Vanilla include ex-pat New Zealander Peter Gordon in London, former Blanket Bay Lodge chef Jason Dell now in Singapore, Award winning restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne including Melbourne Wine Room, The European, Cutler and Co, Jonahs, and Aqua Dining with more being added everyday as they sample Heilala.

In New Zealand, diners will be able to sample dishes prepared using Heilala Vanilla at, among others, The French Café, Antoine’s, Tribeca, The Grove and Meredith’s in Auckland, Waiheke’s Mud Brick Café and Logan Brown in Wellington and Amisfield at Lake Hayes in Otago.

Heilala Vanilla practices organic growing principles in both its Tonga and Tauranga facilities.

Tonga is the most perfect and natural growing environment with the vanilla grown in organic virgin soil, on coconut husk frames, hand pollinated and dried under the Pacific Sun. It is then stored at optimum conditions to ensure full flavour to develop.

Five years ago (2004) Heilala Vanilla began nurturing tissue cultured plants in the family’s bathroom in Tauranga waiting for the greenhouse to be completed.

The Tauranga operation was established primarily as an R&D site the owners could access 24/7 when not in the islands. The Tongan operation provided the knowledge for growing vanilla the year round and Réunion designed and built a computer controlled plastic house in Tauranga that emulates the environment.

Heilala Vanilla has been meticulous in its duplication of Tongan conditions right down to matching the soil and introducing computer-controlled humidity and heating using geo-thermal hot water.

The Tauranga operation is a world first in that vanilla beans have been grown and harvested outside the equatorial band. Today, more than 600 vines are flourishing, climbing high on New Zealand native ponga logs.

The first New Zealand harvest in September 2009 was preceded by the pollinating of the vanilla beans on the vines nine months earlier. Harvesters know the beans are ready from the fact they turn from a green bean to one with a slightly yellow tip.

Mature beans have no flavour or aroma so following harvest they are dipped in hot water for around three minutes. This begins the enzyme reaction that releases the vanilla flavour and more than 200 flavour compounds within the bean.

The beans are sweated and then dried in a temperature-controlled room within the greenhouse. In New Zealand, the heating is provided by geo-thermal hot water.

After three months, the beans are ready to be packaged and distributed.

Growing Vanilla
Vanilla is an orchid, with different root exigencies. In some latitudes Vanilla does not flower every year - the farmer must help the plant to reach "flower induction".

Curing Vanilla is not just a drying process, but a more complex "enzymatic fermentation".

In general, good vanilla will only come from good vines. In order to achieve such high quality, much labour is required. Commercial Vanilla production can be performed under open field and "greenhouse" operations. Heilala Vanilla grows its Vanilla in a shade house in Tonga and a greenhouse in Tauranga.

Both production systems share the following similarities:
• Plant height and number of years before producing the first beans
• Shade necessities (50%)
• Amount of organic matter needed
• A tree or frame (support) to grow on
• Labour intensity (pollination and harvest activities)
• Dry season to induce flowering

Vanilla grows best under hot humid climate from sea level to an elevation of 1500m. Most of its production is done 10 to 20 degrees above and below the equator. Heilala Vanilla’s Tauranga operations duplicate the conditions of its Tonga facility.


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