story by Chad Blair
photos by Linny Morris
Johnny Cash’s voice is blasting from a CD player, and his solemn wail manages to rise above the din of workers wielding hammers, saws and drills. I look up to see a sign reading, “Jesus is the Lord of the Harvest,” and walk gingerly through what will soon become the kitchen of the Hawaiian Vanilla Company Mill and Visitors Center.
I’m thirty-six miles north of Hilo, several miles mauka from Highway 19 and the town of Pa‘auilo. The driving instructions to the mill were color-coded: Take a sharp left at the blue house, go past the old Shell gas pump, look for the large yellow building on your left. There were so many eucalyptus trees along the way that I thought I must be in Oregon. But the remnant tufts of sugarcane sprouting along the two-lane road indicate otherwise: This is the heart of Hamakua—the fertile swath of land stretching from Hilo to Waimea that was, for much of the 20th century, dominated by sugar plantations, and is today home to a growing (pun intended) diversified agriculture movement.
But even by rural Hamakua standards, Hawaiian Vanilla is pretty far off the beaten path, both literally and figuratively.
“People come out here and say, ‘How did you ever find this place? Why did you come out here?’” says owner Jim Reddekopp.
“Well, I’ve got a disease,” he continues. “It’s called ‘vanilla-ism.’”
Jim Reddekopp (it’s pronounced “ready cop”), 42, is currently the only successful commercial farmer of vanilla in the United States. When we met, he wore jeans and a T-shirt with an American flag on the front and a logo for Toro lawnmowers on the back. Needless
to say, the Hawai‘i Kai native has come a long way since he first envisioned becoming a Big Island farmer.
“It was a dinner with my wife Tracy— she’s from Kailua—and someone said, ‘What about macadamia nuts? Papaya? Saffron?’ And then my mother-in-law suggested vanilla.”
Intrigued, he began to research.
“Well, I found out it was an orchid; I found out that it grew only 25 degrees north or south of the equator and that it only bloomed one day out of the year. And, I found that it was the most labor-intensive crop in the world.”