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Ambodipont Village, Madagascar
Andapa Vanilla Harvest Report
The green vanilla beans were already mature - ripe & bursting with vanilla caviar. A long wait of 9 months, a great deal of patience & even higher risk was about to get paid off. It was time for harvest. But I was only scheduled to arrive in Andapa from Accra a week later. This meant that the Randriamihaja family had to guard their fields from vanilla thieves for one more week.
Dylan is a 4th generation farmer and processor of vanilla beans. He grew up along with his 10 siblings and spent his childhood at his ancestral farm, running between the rice fields and climbing up mountains that surrounds the Andapa basin. At age 15, he was ready to help his father. He tended to vanilla vines, pruned the shade trees, trained the growing vines by folding them downwards and then upwards and back, just so the vines reached no higher than his height. This would allow young Dylan to reach for the vanilla beans at the time of harvest.
THE VANILLA ROADS
The weather was not in our favour and a distance of merely 18 kilometers to the farm took us over 2 hours and 30 minutes.
"The road can truly be paved in gold" Dylan quipped. "SAVA region is the world capital of Vanilla, with millions of US dollars flowing in. But who is taking away our money? Why are we forced to be left behind?" he questioned. He was equally frustrated with the possibility of export licences being limited to a handful of big and influential players under the current government's recent regulations. The export of cured vanilla beans are prohibited before September 15th. Until then, he waits in anticipation.
A 'ZERO-TOUCH' VANILLA FARM
Weeds are left undisturbed and the vanilla orchids have litchis, bananas, jackfruits & chameleons for company.
The Randriamihaja family owns around 40 hectares of ancestral land. Rice cultivation occupies majority of the land, leaving about 8 hectares for the vanilla orchids.
A jungle-like patch of farm sits on the far stretches of their picturesque paddy fields, scattered with zebu cattle and surrounded by the rugged mountains of Marojejy National Park. Dense rainforests that surrounds their land's periphery were enveloped with cloud forests at the top - I paused, looked around & stood still.
As we crossed the paddy fields, I sometimes needed help to steadily walk on the slippery paths. I looked back only to see Dylan's 76-year-old father swiftly manoeuvring the rice fields, barefoot. Despite the rain, he showed up at the farm, ready for the big day - The vanilla harvest. It was a happy day for the family, and why not?
THE BIG DAY: ANDAPA VANILLA HARVEST 2022
It was one of those days when it rained, it stopped and rained again. A team of 6 men wrapped the Lambahoany (a traditional piece of cloth worn by men & women) around their waist, picked up their raffia baskets and got ready to hand-pick green vanilla beans. I followed them with my camera to document the harvest. It was surreal to watch precious green beans being harvested, so much so that I ignored the scourge of mosquitoes and buzz of insects, the sight of tree frogs and chameleons that merged with the colour of vines, leaves and ferns around us. For over 5 hours, the men tirelessly hand-plucked the vanilla beans with laser-sharp focus, for not a single bean could be left on the vines or dropped on the thick blanket of weeds underneath our feet.
After 6 o'clock in the evening, green vanilla beans cannot be transported from one district to the other. While we returned to Sambava, some of Dylan's trusted men guarded the beans in Andapa town. The next morning, before dawn, the green beans made their journey to the Sambava facility.
As they arrived, men & women gathered to sort the heap of green beans. Soon after, the room filled with chatter, laughter & folklore. They sorted every single bean in no time and then got ready for day 1 of the vanilla fermentation process.
What a camaraderie!
Every step seemed effortless from a distant, yet intricate and laborious when given an attentive eye. As the men dipped the beans in hot water, the women readied the wooden box layered with blankets.
The pauses, waits & breaks in between was livened up by 'betsabetsa', a local Malagasy Rum that has become a tradition during the curing process ~ some say it is considered auspicious yet others say it helps them stay at ease.
Green vanilla beans 48 hours after fermentation.
For the next 16 weeks, the green beans go through a time-tested, elaborate & a slow fermentation process.
Sorting, washing and alternate baths of steam, sun and slow-drying after, each and every cured vanilla bean is conditioned (or massaged) several times over, before they are ready to be sent to us. A long and strenuous process. Every step is performed manually, the traditional way.
No part of the planting, pollinating, cultivating, harvesting and curing process has been mechanized by the Randriamihajas, until this day.
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