Town and Country — Team Building At Its Best

There’s no doubt that James McNamee is a man of many missions. To us, he’s the mover and shaker behind our farm’s fledgeling hop business. At work, he’s a team leader who inspires loyalty and commitment. In fact, one of James’ biggest strengths lies in team building.

James may have physically left Garston many years ago, but it’s a place still dear to his heart. So it was with some delight — and perhaps trepidation — that in September he let his separate worlds collide. That turned out to be a win for all.

The occasion was the Fulton Hogan Communications Team annual conference; the purpose was Team Building, inclusiveness and open communication and the result was wildly successful — beyond any of our expectations.

Fulton Hogan employees and representatives from partner companies Telstra, Spark, Mobile Mentor and DataCom flew into Queenstown from all parts of Australia and New Zealand. But before the conferencing and presentations they came further south for a “Garston and Beyond” experience that many will never forget.

Day 1: Garston

It’s nearly lambing time on the farm and we had the conveyor in to give the ewes their pre-lamb treatments.  

In days gone by this was a slow and back-breaking job which took ages and stressed sheep and workers alike. But with the advent of conveyor contractors, the ewes get their vaccinations, long-lasting drench and mineral supplements in one morning’s work. The whole thing proved to be fascinating to our visitors.

A birds-eye view of the conveyor crew vaccinating sheep on the farm.
Conveyor crew from the “birds-eye view.”  Conveying is fast and painless for the sheep.

They couldn’t help with injecting the vaccinations etc of course but they loved the birds-eye viewing platform we’d arranged. Some thoroughly enjoyed mucking in and getting their hands (and boots) dirty in the yards, helping to move the sheep up to the conveyor.

Gavin proved particularly handy in the pen. I don’t know if he had worked with sheep before but he seemed to be a bit of a natural. It wasn’t long before he learned just how strong pregnant sheep can be. It’s not easy when a sheep barges back at you, but he soon found the knack to turning them around.

Gavin with a "sheep moving shaker" walking the sheep towards the conveyor.
Gavin earning his morning tea by moving the sheep towards the conveyor. 

Soon it was time for a typical farm “smoko’ — morning tea— and then we moved onto the second task for the day.

Stringing Up The Hop Frames

Hops grow tall — basically as tall as they can get and most of the flowers grow at the upper levels. So when the shoots start to appear in late spring we wind the best ones up 4-metre high strings. These are cut down with the plant at harvest time so fresh strings need to go up each spring.

This was the task James now set his team, and they were delighted to help. It’s a job that takes longer than you’d think and definitely proved a team building winner.

Once they got a system worked out, things flowed smoothly and they got more than half the required strings up. It was so helpful to us — saving us a lot of work at a busy time of year — and I think the team enjoyed knowing that they were doing real farm work instead of a manufactured experience.

Strings along the hop frames.
The hops strings are up. It was such a help for us to have this done and dusted before lambing time.

Walking To Welcome Rock

We wanted to give our visitors a taste of the high country, so who better to call on than Tom O’Brien at Welcome Rock Trails.

There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain drinking in the views and we were so lucky with the weather. I’ve been up that mountain in many different conditions: howling gales, rain, snow, mist not to mention scorching sun. But on this day there was none of that: the weather gods gave us calm and warm, with a touch of cloud. Perfect!

Walking along the Welcome Rock Trail with beautiful sky view.
A beautiful afternoon to start a trek along the Welcome Rock trail.

Snow To Delight And “Fight”

If I had to sum up the walk in just one phrase it would be snowball fights. While most of the trail was clear and dry, there was just enough snow in the sheltered spots to make it interesting — especially for those who had not seen snow before.

Of course, James threw the first snowball.

After that the air filled with flying snow missiles every time we encountered a new patch. Unfortunately for the team James  managed to evade all their snowballs on the way up, while still landing a few telling blows of his own.

James McNamee, snowball at the ready.

The team got their revenge on the way home. No longer needing James to lead the way, they forged ahead and ambushed him while he was distracted by a phone call.

Walking The Trail To A Welcome Lunch

Even without snow, the 27 km trail is a perfect introduction to the New Zealand high country. Don’t worry: we didn’t make our guests walk quite that far. The 45 minute hike to the actual Welcome Rock gave a taste of adventure and plenty of steps to add to the 10,000-steps-a-day “Steptember Challenge” which many of them were doing.

Team members standing on the outcrop of rock known as the Welcome Rock in Garston.
On Welcome Rock

And just down the track from the rock was the welcome sight of Slate Hut and the smell of food. Laura, from Real Country and Hamish (local friend, farmer and neighbour) were busy barbequing a much-needed feast. It seemed a long time since the morning’s smoko.

Guns And Bows: A New Experience

Retracing our steps past Welcome Rock and down the Nevis Road, the team headed to the Real Country base at Kingston where Laura had organised clay bird shooting and archery.

Clay birds, for the uninitiated, are discs about the size of a CD, which are shot into the air out of a spring-loaded trap. It takes a good bit of coordination to hit a moving target, which makes clay shooting quite a challenge.

I must say, the team proved pretty handy at both activities. There’s nothing like the thrill of aiming at and hitting your target, so it proved to be a fun challenge to end a tiring day.

Ready, aim… archery practice at Laura Douglas’s Real Country” shed.

Day 2: Mavora to Mount Nick

Southland is full of amazing scenery and diversity, but we couldn’t show it all in a day, so we loaded up the four-wheel drives and Laura’s van and headed west towards the back blocks that hold a special place in McNamee hearts.

As the crow flies, the Mavora Lakes and Mount Nicholas Station are really just over the hill. Unfortunately we’re not crows, so we had to take the long way round by road. The clouds were down and drizzle fell often, which made us especially thankful for Sunday’s fine weather.

I haven’t been into the Mavoras (as they’re known locally) for years, but they were just as beautiful as I remembered.

There’s magic in misty lakes and mountains and the lakes were serene and still. They were a lovely place for the “Steptember crowd” to get a few more steps in — but woe betide those who came back late to lunch.

Lake Mavora in the mist.
One of the two Mavora Lakes on that misty, moisty morning.

McNamee Memories

The road to Mount Nicholas is full of memories for the McNamee clan. The gravel track arrows through the back-country that they’ve mustered and sweated — or shivered — in over the many years that the McNamee’s have known the Butsons (station owners.)

As we trundled towards Lake Wakatipu, James memories came flooding out. That long fence-line disappearing into the distance — 3 of his brothers built it back in the ‘70s. There’s the Von Hut nestling under the mountain: we’ve heard many a tale about Fall Musterers and the nights they spent there with the dogs and horses bedded down outside.

Now we remember the story of one brother becoming disoriented in a snowstorm on one particularly difficult muster. He’d have died if his dogs hadn’t cuddled warmly around him. And the one about a teenage James — allowed to tag along one day. He jumped over a creek, didn’t quite make it and ended up with a wet boot. Too scared to mention the problem in case he was sent back, he learned an important lesson instead.

Turns out it’s pretty hard to keep up with an experienced mountain musterer when you’re slipping and sliding inside wet boots.

Team Building beside the Home Creek Hut on Mt Nicholas Station in Southland, NZ
Some of the team at Home Creek on Mt Nicholas Station.

Journey’s End

All too soon, it seemed, our journey had finished. We’d stopped at Home Creek, talked with Bruce, the Mt Nicholas tourism operator, at the enormous woolshed and trundled the road between stations down to the Walter Peak wharf where the team was due to catch the Earnslaw steamship back to Queenstown.

This was goodbye time for the Garston crew. We were driving the trucks back along the track.

It says a lot for the inclusiveness of the conference team that we were sorry to see them go. Tom, Hamish, Laura and I loved meeting and spending time with this diverse bunch of people.

Altitude Brewing

While we were trundling back the way we came, there was one last treat in store for the team. They had been in at the beginning of our hop story — now they were heading to the home of the beer brewed from last year’s hop crop.

Altitude Brewing took all of our green hops last year and made a special brew — Jimmy Mac’s — with them. I”ve heard from those in the know that it’s a pretty good beer.

No doubt the team got to taste it — and some of the others on offer at Altitude’s newly-opened premises down by the lake near Frankton.

Team Building — Know, Like And Trust

Making connections and building understanding and trust is a theme that runs through a number of my posts. After all, people are more likely to be friends… to do business… to connect… with people they know, like and trust.

It’s a lesson that many businesses today are beginning to learn; that collaboration and cooperation, social enterprise and ethical practices work better in the long run. They’re better for our health, our environment, our politics and our world.

It seems to me, after meeting the IT Service team from Fulton Hogan, that this is a group actively building the know, like and trust factor.

I guess this is best expressed by Neville, who wrote:

It has been a real highlight of my year & I am at a bit of a loss to properly express just what a great time I had!  
Meeting the other vendors face to face was very valuable, as was spending time with your team outside of our normal daily work-situation. The time away has reinforced to me just how special those relationships are.

So really, in the end, it’s all about people, how you treat them and the relationships you forge. I’ve taken a few lessons from James’ book over the years I’ve known him, but this is surely one of the best.  

In Garston the team stayed at:

Zara Glover – Highland Dancing To The Top

Close up of Zara in her Irish Jig costume.

There’s no age limit on following your dreams. Old or young, it’s the dream and what you are willing to do to achieve it that counts. Zara Glover is just 12 years old, but she is one of the most focused and determined people I know. Let me tell you about Zara and how she is working towards achieving her dreams.

Highland Family Heritage

Zara Glover may be a born and bred Kiwi, but Scottish Highland Dancing is very much in her blood. Her mother’s family comes from the Orkney Islands, and they’ve been dancing for generations.

In New Zealand, Zara’s grandmother and aunts all danced too, and her mother Sandra was only 16 when she began teaching. With all that behind her, it’s no wonder that Zara has loved highland dancing since she was 5 years old.

Dances of the Highlands

When you hear the words Highland Dancing, the chances are that bagpipes, tartan kilts and highland flings come to mind. But I’ve learned from Zara and her family that there is much more to dancing than first meets the eye.

It seems that most of the highland dances of Scotland have their roots in history and legend.

There’s the Fling of course: its origin comes from the fierce battlegrounds, where victorious highland warriors laid their targes (small, round shields) on the ground and danced the stag-like steps on top.

You may have seen a sword dance too.

Two swords are laid on the ground in the form of a cross and the dancer leaps nimbly, first slowly and then faster in a series of complicated steps. It was said that if a warrior touched a sword as he danced then he would surely be wounded in the coming battle. But woe betide the dancer who kicked it out of position: that was an omen of death. Even today, in competitions, you’ll be disqualified if you displace a sword during the dance.

Zara Glover springing high above crossed swords in a highland sword dance.
Zara springing high above crossed swords in a competition.

But did you know that the Irish Jig and Sailor’s Hornpipe are also popular highland dances? Then there’s the Seann Truibhas (pronounced Shawn Trews) which in English means “old trousers”. This dance began in the terrible years after the battle of Culloden when the Highland Clans were all but destroyed, the kilt was banned and the men forced to wear the hated English trews (trousers.)

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Zara and her younger brother Alex are learning all these dances and more. Of course, beginners don’t learn the full dances at first. They learn the basic steps and as they develop their technique and stamina over time the more complicated elements are added.

It seems to me that highland dances are very precise. Toes pointed just so. Fingers held exactly right. Stance, walk, knees, breathing, even facial expressions — these are all taught right from the beginning so that they become second nature.

Fitness and athleticism count for a lot too.

Zara is one incredibly fit young lady, and when I realised just how much dancing she actually does — including the hours of practice, I understood why. You burn a huge amount of energy doing any one of the highland dances, let alone performing all of them, which is something Zara — and Alex — often have to do.

Zara in sailor suit, dancing the hornpipe.
Dancing the Sailor’s Hornpipe.

Dance a Little Deeper

There are three main components in the highland dancing world: exams, competitions and shows. All three play a big part in the Glovers’ lives, with Zara and Alex dancing and Sandra teaching, organising costumes and of course transporting.

Sandra is also a qualified judge, so in competitions she often has a big role to play there, although not in the sections where her own children are competing.

Examination season comes around twice each year and becomes a huge focus in May and September. Exams are graded of course, with each one being progressively harder.

The Coveted Solo Seal

The top honour in New Zealand Highland Dancing is the Solo Seal and to win this is Zara’s mission. It’s a tall order. To qualify, Zara must attain honours in every previous examination — both practical and theory. Even with that daunting task accomplished, there is still the actual Solo Seal exam to complete: an incredibly rigorous examination which is often performed in public.

Very few dancers manage to achieve this coveted award, but Zara is aiming to be one of them. To date she’s on track, having achieved honours in each exam so far, but there’s a long road ahead. With so many exams to pass before you can enter for the Solo Seal, most dancers are 19 or 20 before they attempt the final exam.

Competitions Big And Small

Competitions are a regular part of life for the Glover family. Many a weekend will find Zara, Sandra and Alex on the road heading for an event somewhere in New Zealand. There are competitions at all levels, from local clubs right through to the Nationals, where the best dancers of all ages compete.

The number of medals, sashes and cups that Zara has won over the years is truly breathtaking. She has boxes of beautiful sashes, another dedicated to medals, and a whole cabinet devoted to awards and mementoes of special highland dancing trips. Not to mention the cups — most of which are awards won in the past year. They’ll be returned to the various competitions in due course, but it’s entirely possible that more will take their place.

A colourful display of ribbons and rosettes won by Zara in highland dancing competitions.
Just a fraction of the ribbons and rosettes in Zara’s collection.

Highland Dancing Shows

One thing I was truly surprised to discover is that Highland Dancing has more than the traditional dances found in exams and competitions. And this is where the shows come into play. Here, talented choreographers weave traditional steps into modern dances, interpreting themes and stories in a way that is fun and beautiful to watch.

New Zealand even has its own Highland Dance Company which is known for its exciting and innovative dances. Joining the company is the second part of Zara’s dream. It would be hard work but thrilling to be part of a company that performs all over the world.

Highland Dancing With The Stars

Indeed, Zara and Alex have already had a taste of that life. In November 2017 they joined a team of young dancers from all over New Zealand to compete in a unique competition at Euro Disney in Paris.

Highland dancers from all over the world congregated in huge numbers to compete in a variety of traditional and modern competitions. New Zealand’s dancers shone in the ChoreoMagic category with their vibrant costumes and exciting interpretations. Zara and Alex were in several dances and both were part of “Moana” which won the New Zealand contingent the Overall Award.

More recently the Highland Dance Company toured in New Zealand with a show called “The Heart of the Highlands.” In each centre, they invited young local dancers to join them. Zara and Alex were part of the vibrant show in Invercargill.

There are other, more local shows as well, everywhere from performing for Rest Home residents to displays at the Edendale Crank Up day and the Te Anau Tartan Festival. Shows are mighty hard work, but the fun and camaraderie make it all worthwhile.

Alex Glover, aged 9, performing an Irish Jig dance.
Alex performing the Irish Jig.

Learning Life Lessons

Sandra says that the dancing world has given Zara and Alex many important life skills. They certainly know the value of hard work, and the truth of the phrase “practice makes perfect.”

But they’ve also learned how to win — and lose — graciously, and how to be proud but not boastful of their achievements. The family have made lasting friendships through dancing, but at the same time, they’ve learned how to cope with stress and nerves too.

Fitness we’ve already mentioned, but Zara’s dancing has been great for memory training as well. When you have to remember so many steps, dances and the theory behind them it certainly exercises your memory muscle.

Zara Glover — Surely One To Watch

I’ve known this young lady since she was five, and have loved watching her develop into the person she is today. It was great to interview Zara and Sandra and learn more about their highland dancing way of life. Zara’s dreams are big, but the way she’s going there’s every chance she’ll achieve them.

The icing on the cake, for me, was going to the Heart of the Highland’s show. I’d travel to see a show like that again in a heartbeat. Perhaps one day I’ll be there to watch Zara as a member of the Highland Dance Company.

Good luck with your dreams, Zara. We’ll be cheering for you all the way.

Garston – A Place To Call Home

Overlooking the playground on the Green.

I’ve lived on a farm in Garston for 35+ years so that almost makes me a local. But my husband is truly Garston born and bred. His family were one of the first to settle in the valley when it was opened up to farmers in the 1860’s and the McNamees have been here ever since.

So for our family, the ties to Garston run very deep, and we’d find it pretty difficult to leave.

But what is it that makes this quiet country village so hard to beat?

Cycle Trail with distant mountains, looking north towards Garston.
The “Around the Mountains” cycle trail, heading North to Garston.

The View

Let’s begin with Garston’s location.

The village is set in the narrow Upper Mataura River Valley, and mountains range on either side, as far as the eye can see. Their beauty is different from the craggy splendour of Queenstown’s Remarkables range. Ours are “working” mountains; home to animals — farmed and wild —  rare bugs, mountain plants and above all, the golden tussocks which colour the landscape.

Above the village, hidden terraces slope in layers up to the foot of the mountains, and this is where our house can be found. When I step out of the back door for my daily walk there is not a soul to be seen. It’s just me, the birds and the sheep.

What a way to begin — or end —  a day.

A Tough Start

When Europeans first arrived they farmed the Upper Mataura Valley as one giant sheep station. But later on the area was divided into 200-acre sections and these were balloted out to small farmers and settlers.

And that’s where the modern history in Garston begins. Our family came from the lean pickings of the gold claims in the Skippers Valley to try their luck at farming. Others made money killing rabbits — a lucrative enough trade in those days to enable them to save enough to buy into a farm. Some came from family farms further north or south.

Life was pretty tough in those early days. The valley had very few trees back then and firewood was in short supply. The winters were brutal. There’s a famous tale of one long ago winter when the deep snow lasted for so long that the settlers had to use their carefully-hoarded fence posts for firewood just to survive.

Money was scarce too. The kids walked to school from farms dotted around the countryside whether they had shoes or not. My father-in-law used to say:

“We never minded stepping in a cow pat on the way to school —  at least it warmed our feet up.”

I still don’t know if he was joking or not.

Gold

There’s gold in them thar hills. Or at least there used to be.

Shortly after the settlers arrived gold was discovered in creeks and cracks all around, and life got busy as the gold miners flooded in. They came from all over the world to try their luck, set up camp for a while and livened up the area.

Eventually, the gold became too difficult to find, and the miners drifted away to try their luck elsewhere. They left reminders of their stay, with a little cluster of Chinese miners’ graves in the cemetery, and the great water races which they dug high in the mountains to supply water for the great sluice guns in the Nokomai Valley just beyond Garston.

Loving Reminders

Stone picnic table and seat in Garston.
The memorial picnic area north of the Garston Green.

John Newman

It’s easy to guess that Garston is proud of its history. One of the first things that stands out when you stop is the information booth, which was updated after much collaboration by local historians. And when you start to look around you’ll find caring memorials all over the Garston Green.

North of the shops is the picnic area dedicated to John Newman, a former owner of the Garston Hotel, who planted so many of the trees between Athol and Arrowtown. Take a stroll towards the tree-covered hillside nearby and you’ll find a gorgeous little walk called Newman’s Way which takes you up over the knoll to Garston School.

Newman's Way sign and path at Garston.
One of three entrances to Newman’s Way.

The Vital Rail Link

Further down the Green, you’ll find tributes to the time when the trains ran in Garston because when the railway opened in 1878 it was a huge boon to the area.

In those days before sealed roads, fast cars and huge articulated trucks, trains were the best and fastest way to travel the long distance between the “big smoke” of Invercargill in the South and Kingston — the gateway to Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown — in the North.

Farmers transported stock in and out of the valley by rail right up until the early 1970s.

Close up of a man guiding sheep onto a railway wagon.
Loading sheep onto the train at the Nokomai Siding, 1968.   Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Even when trucks took over the job, the famous Kingston Flyer steam train ran through Garston as a tourist attraction until 1979, when floods damaged the railway tracks so badly that the whole line closed.


Garston doesn’t forget, though. On the Green, you’ll find tracks, trucks and a display of antique jiggers. There, too, is a loving memorial to Russell Glendinning, a towering figure in local railway lore.

The Russell Glendinning Memorial Seat.
Russell Glendinning was a hugely popular, expert train driver. He drove the Kingston Flyer on her last-ever trip through Garston.

Peter Rabbit’s Village

Peter Rabbit’s House has been a special secret in Garston for a long time now. It’s a bit of a  mystery; who did put out that little clothesline and Peter Rabbit sign next to the rabbit hole? Whoever it was, I hope they know how their whimsy brought smiles, and that gradually other, secret “rabbit paraphernalia” appeared.

Tiny clothesline and outhouse in Peter Rabbit's Garston village.
Some of the original pieces in Peter’s village.

Eventually, someone added a diary, and visitors started leaving Peter little notes.

The House expanded in 2017 when the Garston School children decided that Peter needed company, and made a whole replica gold-mining era village.

No one will tell you whereabouts Peter Rabbit’s Village is in Garston. To this day it’s still a delightful surprise to discover for yourself.

The River

Winding through the valley, the Mataura River is world renowned for its trout. People come from all over the globe to try their luck in the cool, clear waters during the fly-fishing season. Some eat their catch or mount it to sit proudly on a wall.

But others are simply there for the love of the fish and the sport. Those intrepid fishermen are found in the tricky “catch and release” sections of the river. Some of the fish there are huge — and wily — having been caught and released more than once over the years.

My favourite river memories are set in the 1990’s. Baking summer days, at the stony beach under the old railway bridge where all the local mums and kids gathered to cool off.

The children floated down the river on giant old inner-tubes from their dads’ tractors, jumped off the rocks and ate enormous afternoon teas. The bravest of them hung over the rail of the towering bridge above.

“Watch me! Watch me!” they’d yell and then leap down into the deepest pool below.

Stretch Your Legs In Garston…

Nowadays Garston is moving on and looking outwards.

Travellers stream through on their way to the glories of Milford Sound or Queenstown and many of them stop at the Garston Green for a welcome break.

Kids race to recover from their long journeys on the playground. Adults discover the delights of  The Coffee Bomb, Craft Keepers and The Hunny Shop.

…Or Stay A While

But some opt for more than a quick stop.

Fishermen, bikers, hikers and those who just want a slice of rural peace and quiet, can all find a bed at the Garston Hotel or at one of the lovely B&Bs dotted around the district.

There’s no denying that living in the country has its challenges. Farmers tend to work the daylight hours: short in winter, long in summer. And of course, in the spring lambing and autumn harvest seasons, work can continue well after dark.

And almost every trip requires a car: we’re simply too far from everywhere to walk.

But despite that, Garston is a special place to be. Friendships run deep and beauty surrounds us every time we step out the door.

I am lucky to call this little slice of New Zealand home.

Frontage of the Garston Information Booth at the Garston Green.

B&Bs in Garston:

The Red Shed

Southern Venues High Country Farmstay

The Naylor House

Menlove Homestay

Castle Hill Lodge

Anakawa

Meadowbank

P.S.

Eventually, I plan to have many more profiles of the enterprising people who live and work in Garston, Athol, Kingston and beyond.

If you (or someone you know) would like to feature on Time of my Life I’d love to hear from you.

Please contact me through the contact form below or message me through Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

If you live further afield in the South and feel your story would be a good fit for Time of my Life, I’m happy to help. Contact me to arrange a time to connect.

In Defence Of Vanilla

Dried Vanilla Beans on a plate.

Vanilla Doesn’t Deserve Its Bland Image

Last week I listened to a podcast.

It had nothing to do with vanilla — in fact, it was about a blogger who changed her rather bland writing into a vivid and personable style, thus attracting more readers.

But afterwards, the host commented that the writer’s former style was a bit vanilla.”

And I thought:

“Whoa! How did vanilla get such a bad rap?

Why do we describe things that are bland or boring as “vanilla’?

Because let me tell you, I’ve been finding out about vanilla lately and there’s NOTHING bland and boring about the world’s second-most expensive spice.

Difficult To Grow

For a start, it is an amazingly tricky crop to grow. It originally came from Mexico, where in the wild it will grow from seed. But that is a hit-and-miss affair so farmers grow the vine from a cutting.

Vanilla comes from the orchid family and has a difficult-to-pollinate flower that, it turns out, is pollinated in the wild by hummingbirds and the Mexican Melipona bee. Actually, even this fact is more of a theory. To be honest no one seems to know for sure exactly what insect pollinates the plant. To add to that, each flower only lives for one day and is fertile for just 8-12 hours of that time. So, whatever insect does the job, it has to be really on the ball.

But in other vanilla-farming countries — spread through tropical parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific — the only way to pollinate is by hand.

Fortunately, the flowers are hermaphrodites (male and female)  so each flower can fertilize itself. Unfortunately, there’s a delicate membrane between the anther (male, pollen-producing part) and stigma (female, germinating part).

So you have to insert a small, sharp stick into the flower, lift the membrane, then rub the anther and stigma together without damaging any of the delicate flower parts. It’s a very labour intensive process.

So Much Time And Work

Nine months later the long, thin pods are fully grown and the tips begin to turn yellow. This is the sign they are ready for harvesting. Farmers now have to move fast. Once picked, the crop will deteriorate and go mouldy very quickly.

The freshly harvested green pods have nothing of the flavour and aroma we associate with vanilla. That comes a whole year later after the pods have been “killed”, sweated, dried and conditioned.

Most farmers don’t have the resources to process their own crop, so they sell to middlemen who supply the raw vanilla to big processing factories.

Farming Can Be Dangerous

Madagascar is the world’s leading producer of vanilla. It’s a big business there and that brings some dangerous problems.

All of a sudden it seems that the world can’t get enough of the stuff and that demand, coupled with short supply caused by cyclone damage to the crops, is causing some real headaches.

Theft is a major issue.

Vanilla thieves can strike in the middle of the night and decimate a farmer’s entire yearly income. So the farmers of Madagascar have taken to patrolling their ripening crops for up to 3 months of the year in a bid to protect them. It’s a dangerous job and people have been killed in the process.

Expensive Environmental Problem

But even worse, in my opinion, is the environmental damage that’s occurring as more of Madagascar’s precious and irreplaceable rainforest is cleared to make way for more vanilla farms.

It’s hard to blame the farmers. People have to feed their families, but where does it end? This is only one in a long line of lucrative crops that have motivated people to decimate the world’s vital landscapes.

We are all paying the price for that.

Vanilla Closer To Home 

In New Zealand, we are lucky enough to have access to sustainably grown vanilla sourced much closer to home. In fact, several South Pacific countries are now growing the precious plant. These are lead by Tonga, which started growing the crop in 2001 after a devastating cyclone wiped out many local businesses and infrastructure.

Heilala Vanilla began as a partnership between a kiwi family who wanted to help Tonga get back on its feet and a local farming family in Utungake. They produced their first, small harvest in 2005. Now they are not only providing employment and stability in Tonga but they are also mentoring groups in Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands to do the same.

After all this, you might be wondering how we actually use vanilla. Why is it worth going to all this trouble for?  

Some Uses

Vanilla is primarily used in cooking as a flavouring. The Aztecs used it in conjunction with cacao to produce a rich, chocolaty drink, and this was how it was first used when it came to Europe and England.

Many recipes, both sweet and savoury,  call for vanilla. In some it’s the hero — have you ever tried real vanilla ice cream? In other dishes, it complements and enhances all the other flavours, so that without it the meal falls a little flat.

My Recipes has some interesting dishes on their website.

It’s also an essential ingredient in some perfumes, cola drinks, and lends its aroma to candles, cigars, liqueurs… Turns out the world has many uses for the precious vanilla pod (or bean as it’s sometimes known.)

Vanilla and ice cream served with raspberries.

Not All Vanilla Is The Real Deal

Now I bet you’ve had vanilla ice cream many times in your life. You know, those favourite Kiwi brands like TipTop, Deep South, Pams … they all have it.

“Plain ice cream” we called it when I was a kid, and we ate it with hot puddings or fruit desserts.

Oh-oh. It turns out that “plain ice cream” is an excellent description for those —  and other cheap ice cream brands — because there is not actually a skerrick of real vanilla to be found in any of them.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that any cheap vanilla product you buy contains imitation vanilla, which is made synthetically and comes a far distant second in flavour and aroma in comparison to the real thing.

Real Vanilla Is Expensive

If you want real vanilla, be prepared to pay for it. Premium ice cream brands — yes, the ones I checked use actual vanilla beans.

Vanilla Essence — if it’s cheap, it’s imitation. Look for the words “real vanilla”, “seeds” and “alcohol” on the label if you want to buy genuine vanilla.

Vanilla paste is another alternative and I’ve noticed that many of my healthier baking recipes call for that. Some recipes use actual vanilla beans and seeds. Now that I know so much more, I might even try that too.

For now, I’ll stick to the essence though. It still costs me a small fortune each time I buy a new bottle, but after discovering just some of the amazing story behind vanilla, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

P.S. — There’s No Vanilla Farming In Garston

After learning so much about the trials, tribulations and joys of vanilla farming, I’m slightly relieved that our grain crops and are somewhat easier, and certainly less dangerous to grow.

Our hops are less labour-intensive to harvest and process, and I still have time to gather the wild foods that grow around our farm.

Thanks to all the hard-working farmers who feed the world.

Sources for this article include:

factsanddetails.com

Fighting the Vanilla Thieves

Wikipedia

And the podcast comment that triggered this post came from one of my favourite podcasters Darren Rowse over at ProBlogger