National / Social Issues

Okinawa farm kicks off vanilla bean project to employ the poor and disabled

by Kumiko Kanetomo

Kyodo

Taking a cue from soaring world prices for vanilla, an Okinawa farm has started cultivating the valuable spice in an initiative aimed at promoting the employment of low-income workers and people with disabilities.

Vanilla, called “green gold” for the prices it fetches, requires a labor-intensive process to produce. About 80 percent of the global supply comes from Madagascar, but natural disasters and speculative trading have made it even pricier, causing imports to Japan to collapse.

The initiative was launched by local farm producer Solfa Community and Tokyo-based nonprofit group Decent Work Labo, which offers a consulting service for employment of the disabled.

But it has also attracted the interest of Japanese pastry chefs seeking a stable supply of vanilla beans, with Club Harie Co., a confectioner in Shiga Prefecture, providing some of the funding.

As the sun beat down on June 7, Solfa Community planted the first vanilla seedlings of the project at a farm in the village of Kitanakagusuku. The company, which has been growing organic produce, including bananas, already counts many people with disabilities among its hires.

Atsushi Kawabata, 54, who was using a chain saw to cut down trees at the farm, has a learning disorder that makes it difficult to remember words. “But I love working and this is fun,” he said, wiping away the sweat.

The farmland, untended for over 30 years, is still like jungle. Most of the village’s farm plots are being abandoned because the owners are too old.

Solfa Community plans to cultivate 15,000 sq. meters and plant 1,500 vanilla vines by the end of this year, harvesting them in two to three years’ time.

Suguru Tamaki, the 35-year-old representative of Solfa Community, is enthusiastic. “We would like this to not be limited to disabled people and to create jobs for people with low incomes and help resolve Okinawa’s poverty,” he said.

“I don’t care if they fail. I want to encourage our young people to take up the challenge,” said Kitanakagusuku Mayor Kunio Arakaki, 63.

Ayaka Nakao, 36, head of Decent Work Labo, said her group got the idea from the spice’s skyrocketing prices.

Prices for vanilla bean imports have jumped over 10-fold in the past five years, reaching ¥60,000 ($560) per kilogram in 2018, according to Finance Ministry trade statistics. Volume has dropped by almost half.

“It has become harder for consumers to easily enjoy vanilla. The black vanilla specks have disappeared from ice creams and puddings” in Japan, Nakao said.

The Japanese patisserie industry is facing a serious situation from vanilla prices.

“We are in a crisis situation as we may be forced to give up using vanilla,” said renowned pastry chef Takao Yamamoto, the 46-year-old president of Club Harie. “We want to make fragrant vanilla” with the farm.

Success will rest on the three-month fermentation and drying process after the harvest of bean pods grown on vanilla orchids. Although vanilla is already produced domestically, such as in Fukuoka and Miyazaki, Japan’s processing technology still hasn’t been able to produce a rich flavor yet. Patisserie chefs describe the aroma of domestic vanilla as “less than one-tenth of the Bourbon vanilla made in Madagascar.”

Solfa’s Tamaki gained experience by working as an apprentice at a vanilla farm in Mexico, which has historically cultivated the spice.

“We are experimenting and applying our knowledge simultaneously. It’s fun because we don’t know how successful we’ll be,” he said.