Every morning from 6 a.m. to noon, Saili Levi and his 8-year-old daughter Malie hand-pollinate the flowers of the vanilla orchid vines they grow for the Laie Vanilla Co., their family business.
Malie has become “the master pollinator,” learning the tricky skill at age 5, he said. With her nimble little fingers and flexible back, she works on the flowers lower to the ground to save Levi from having to bend too far over.
The business blossomed out of some clippings taken from vanilla orchid vines that Levi found on an abandoned plot of land a few years ago. He planted them in pots in his backyard. Those orchids produced more clippings that proliferated into even more plants. A year later, the vines filled his whole yard and their flowers were in bloom.
He learned how to pollinate each flower by hand from a Big Island grower because the Melipona bee that usually does the job doesn’t live in Hawaii.
The family operation encompasses everything from growing and curing the beans to packaging them for sale to high-end restaurants, customers at the Kakaako farmers market, and online. (Food-industry clients include Honolulu Coffee Co., Madre Chocolate and restaurants Artizen by MW and Senia.)
Levi dubs his three daughters “the vanilla kids” because they’re all involved in the family’s livelihood, plus their favorite way to enjoy the vanilla is in the syrup his wife makes to pour over waffles. Besides Malie, who also helps Levi run the cash box at the Saturday farmers market, his 5-year-old, Inilani, is “in training” to learn how to pollinate, and his youngest, Taimane, at 4, just helps to pull weeds. His wife, Abby, a registered nurse, steps in to do some pollinating when they’re at the market, Levi said.
How it started
In 2017, Levi was replacing a broken pipe while working for a water distribution company when he first discovered the thick vanilla orchid vine growing wild. He didn’t even know what it was, but a co-worker from Tonga identified it as vanilla, a profitable crop grown in his country. That got him to thinking and praying a lot about starting his own business so he could spend more time with his family; he had been diagnosed with cancer a year before, he said.
After learning how to grow the bourbon vanilla beans (Vanilla planifolia), he quit his water company job in January 2020 to devote himself full time to the enterprise. Levi expanded his home operation to include a hothouse he built on an acre of land nearby, which holds a thousand plants. But he still has a 25-foot section of plants at the house from which he harvests 30 pounds of beans annually.
“We were literally backyard farmers,” he said. “I was really surprised at how well the vines grew. Just be patient the first couple of years.”
It takes a plant one to two years to mature and produce beans if grown from clippings about 3 to 5 feet long. From one fully mature plant, over 100 beans or one pound of vanilla can be produced a year, Levi added.
Grow at home
The simplest way to root the vines is to put them in water for a couple of months until roots sprout, Levi said. Then transfer the plants into a mixture of perlite, peat moss and coconut husks, either in pots or in the ground. Water them once a week, and mist them to increase humidity. The first three years at home, Levi grew the vines under a shady tree or a 70% shade mesh covering.
He recommends putting a trellis around each plant so the vines can climb toward the sun, and to keep looping them through the trellis as they lengthen. Vines can grow up to 50 feet long, so don’t let them crawl too high, and trim them back once a year after flowering, Levi said. Also, the vine sends out air roots that can extend up to 4 feet until they reach the ground or pot medium to root themselves, he added. He fertilizes with compost, mixed in with mulch and occasionally chicken manure.
The vines typically produce flowers from March to August. Once the vines produce the small, yellow orchids, they need to be pollinated, using a Q-tip or wooden toothpick to help manipulate the tiny stigma and anther.
At first it was hard for Levi’s daughter Malie to understand which tiny parts of the flower needed to be lifted up and gently pressed together — her hand shook, and it took two days for her to get it right, she said.
There is only a six-hour window in which the flowers can be pollinated, or the pollen is no longer viable and no beans will sprout, Levi said. During those morning hours before noon, Malie and her father work on the flowers that have opened. There are about 30 to 40 flowers in a cluster, but they don’t all bloom on the same day, so each vine has to be checked several times.
The stem continues to grow into a bean for nine months. From September to December, they pick the beans when they start turning yellow, then dry them in the sun for 2-1/2 months.
With his cancer now under control and his family operation thriving, Levi is gratified by his leap of faith.
“It’s just been a great blessing,” he said.
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