The story of a Tongan aid project that blossomed into a business that has executive chef’s and foodies who can’t get enough of Heilala Vanilla.
Meet the Boggiss and Ross family. John Ross, his daughter Jennifer and her husband Garth.
They started Heilala Vanilla in 2002 and still own and operate the business today.
Before 2002, John was a retired dairy farmer, Jennifer was an accountant and Garth worked in IT. They worked a dormant piece of land in Utungake, Tonga gifted to them by the local village. Little did they know at the time that the piece of land was destined for something great.
John and Garth put to practice their horticultural know how to kick start the plantation by researching countries around the world that grew vanilla in the narrow band 20 degrees on each side of the equator. The plan was to help to provide the locals with employment and hope that the demand for vanilla blossomed.
It then took three years to develop and nurture the vines through the on-going art of careful training, weeding and looping, all while ensuring organic sustainable farming was being practised.
John who was once a frequent holiday maker to Tonga is now virtually a local spending up to six months a year at the Tongan plantation.
In 2005 the first 40kg harvests of Vanilla pods were ready. Time passed, the plantation went from strength to strength harvesting a healthy two tonne in 2010. All the tender love and care has resulted in the richest grade of Vanilla in the Asia Pacific region with its distinctive aroma, shine and plumpness coveted by chefs all around the world.
An annual crop is brought back from Tonga to the company’s base in Tauranga, New Zealand. Heilala Vanilla is then packaged for each order; the Pure Extract and Vanilla Paste, Syrup and vanilla bean sugar are manufactured, and dispatched to Executive Chefs, gourmet food manufacturers and a selection of specialty retail outlets.
Several years have passed and the plantation has matured, but the research and development of more exciting 100% pure vanilla ideas continue. The practice of true sustainability with the local village also continues and has enabled resources for education and infrastructure, which the community otherwise may not have had. It is recognised by the local Agriculture Ministry as a true example of a Pacific partnership in practice something that is rather special to us.
Tasting vanilla creations are something we never get bored of. We now have a small plantation in Tauranga which is a great opportunity for chefs and media to come and visit and get a feel for the most labour intensive crop on the planet.