Oz-versus-Kiwi fight over vanilla leaves bad taste in many mouths

If you are a vanilla fan, pause. It’s leaving a bad taste in some Australasian mouths. Indeed, it is the subject of a strident scrap on Vava’u in Tonga, over the South Pacific island’s lucrative vanilla crop.

Two families, one from Australia, the other from New Zealand, are in a shabby little dust-up. What’s your flavor in this row?

A family-owned Tauranga company, Heilala Vanilla, has been growing vanilla, the world’s second most expensive spice, on Vava’u in Tonga for more than 10 years. No competition until last year.

That’s when the Brisbane-based Himstedt family company, Queen Fine Foods, arrived.

It came in with a fat wallet and dispensed T$500,000 ($364,000) to local farmers to boost their production. It was appealing but it locked the growers into a five-year supply contract and won the backing of Tonga’s agriculture minister, Sangster Saulala.

Vanilla is a smart product to have a stake in. The price for world benchmark Madagascar vanilla grew 100 per cent in 12 months.

The Kiwis’ Heilala outfit has its own boutique brand with creative marketing.

On the other hand, Queen sells vanilla in small medicine bottles and controls supermarket shelf space.

Relationships between the two families are chilly, to say the least. Heilala’s John Ross reckons Queen is “only trying to get rid of us”. Queen’s Sam Himstedt responds he’s not throwing stones. He just has a better deal for farmers

A little history:

In 2002 Ross, a retired Kiwi dairy farmer, with his Papakura Rotary Club’s support, helped Vava’u locals repair damage after a catastrophic cyclone. A local family offered Ross four hectares of land to develop as an organic vanilla farm, growing 2500 Madagascar bourbon vanilla seedlings. His first harvest in 2005 was 40 kilograms. Last year it was nearly five tons, which included beans purchased from other farmers.

When Queen arrived last year he said the Tongan Government asked it to help revive vanilla. So Queen pays 257 growers an upfront fee of T$3 a plant and fixes the vanilla price at T$13 a kilo for green beans for five years. Those on contract were warned sales to anyone but Queen’s would lead to court action.

Government told Ross he was paying farmers too much, at T$25. Ross says he has been threatened with legal action because Heilala’s higher price was encouraging Queen growers to break their contracts.

“It is none of their business who I buy vanilla from … we will give them money, they give us beans.”

Boggiss says Queen growers “were effectively screwed” on price and some growers had approached them to buy their crop. She said another grower on Vava’u, who did not initially sign up with Queen’s, was pressured. He was told, she said, that the plan was to get rid of Heilala.

“They have looked at us, and we have annoyed them … They have looked at our story and say this is an easy way to cut them off at the knees and this is a way to end them and then duplicate our feel-good story.”

Himstedt, who is part of the family that owns the century-old Queen, denied they were trying to end Heilala.

“Honestly, our story up there is simply we were asked, many times by various people, over the last year or so, to help out in the industry.”

(Murray Burt)

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