The Hawaiian Vanilla Company Experience

Lisa Brochu, my wife and consulting partner in Heartfelt Associates, recently celebrated a birthday and suggested we have her birthday lunch at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company. In two decades of traveling to 24 countries and 50 U.S. states to train and consult on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences, we had somehow managed to miss visiting a vanilla farm, so it seemed the perfect opportunity.

 

Jim Reddekopp founded the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in 1998 following up on a dream to develop his own unique agritourism business. His in-laws were orchid enthusiasts and explained to him that the vanilla orchid is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. He began his journey to create America’s first commercial vanilla company and admits today he might not have pursued this dream had he known the complexity and challenges ahead.

 

We live on the Kona or west side of the Big Island of Hawaii and have a small coffee farm where we also raise miniature horses. I teach tourism and destination planning at Palamanui Campus of Hawaii Community College and learning more about unique tourism experiences is always of value. Many of our students grow up on unique Big Island farming operations but don’t always realize the tourism opportunities available with most kinds of farming.

 

Jim Reddekopp prepares the appetizer table side.

They have a capacity of 24 people per day, but I booked two tickets easily over the Internet, choosing the combination of the Vanilla Luncheon and a guided tour of the vanilla farm, a total of $84 plus tax. The tour alone is $25. The farm is about three miles uphill from the main highway between Honokaa to Hilo at the village of Paauilo, almost a two-hour drive for us. We arrived about noon at the yellow building that houses their food service and Vanilla Shoppe. The building was once a coffee processing plant and later a meat processing operation, since this part of eastern Hawaii has had a rich history of changing agricultural fortunes from sugar cane to coffee to ranching.

 

The lunch began with Jim, the founder, cooking an appetizer at table side that consisted of a delicious shrimp with vanilla infused spice rub, sautéed in olive oil and served on a crisp bread with vanilla mango chutney. The entrée was a tasty vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich topped with vanilla caramelized onions on a vanilla-flavored sweet bread bun with a choice of vanilla aioli or vanilla BBQ sauce, roasted spiced potatoes and an organic tossed salad with a vanilla raspberry balsamic vinegar dressing topped with spicy honey-peppered pecans. We tried the vanilla-flavored Jimmy Boy beverage, their own version of the Arnold Palmer combination of lemonade and iced tea. The meal was delicious and Jim shared the story of how vanilla accentuates flavors when activated by citrus, cream or alcohol. He also shared how to make your own vanilla extract by combining slit vanilla pods in a bottle with your favorite alcohol – vodka, whiskey, rum or whatever.

 

After lunch, Ian, Jim’s son, took us down the hill for a visit to the shade houses used to grow the vanilla orchid vines. Ian told the story of their learning journey very well. They credit Tom Kadooka, a Big Island orchid specialist with getting them started. Visits to Mexico farms that produce vanilla and Madagascar where the very best vanilla is produced added to their knowledge bases. Their approaches to growing and harvesting evolved over several years, but the current

Ian shared their unique story while showing us the growing vanilla vines.

system seems to be working well. Orchid vines take from two to five years to mature enough to produce flowers, depending on propagation methods. An orchid flower opens for only 4 hours and must be hand-pollinated in that period or no seed pod is produced. It is a very labor intensive farming activity, perhaps only second to the production of saffron. The pods have to grow for two months, be picked green and blanched, and then stored in a very specific environment and hand massaged to produce the best vanilla. The five Reddekopp children have grown up working to produce the unique crop and their good efforts show.

 

After the tour, we returned to the Vanilla Shoppe and snack bar. Cold water and a cup of vanilla ice cream completed the tour, along with a short video to reinforce what we’d just learned about the process of growing and harvesting vanilla, followed by a cup of vanilla flavored coffee (along with cream and vanilla sugar if desired). Jim answered questions and shared a favorite quote, “dreams come one size too big so you can grow into them.” They had a big dream twenty years ago and they have grown into it, producing more than 1,700 pounds of vanilla pods each year. They also produce more than 80 unique products using their vanilla as an ingredient. It would be challenging to go through the meal and tour and then leave without buying vanilla flavored items at their gift shop and so of course, we loaded up a basket of goodies to enjoy later, including the “make your own extract” kit of a bottle with three vanilla beans (add your own liquor).

 

You can stop by during daily hours for a quick snack and shop in their gift store.

The Reddekopp family added the tourism component to a very successful vanilla production farm to create year-round employment for their best employees. It’s a labor-intensive business and keeping a well-trained workforce makes it all better. For the Big Island it is a unique attraction and one more place for tourists and island residents to get a glimpse of a unique agri-business. We left the experience with new stories to tell and a new appreciation of the complex flavors enhanced by vanilla.

 

-Tim Merriman

 

 

Off-Grid Lessons Learned

On April 2nd I wrote about our plans to install an off-grid solar system with Aquion batteries on our new bamboo home on the Big Island of Hawaii. It seemed we had little choice. Off-grid solar was less expensive than hooking up to the electrical grid.

 

Our bali-style bamboo house has nine 275 watt photovoltaic solar panels.

Our bali-style bamboo house has nine 275 watt photovoltaic solar panels.

Seven months later, we live in the home and monitor our 2,475 watt off-grid system on a daily basis. Nine 275-watt panels are mounted on the south-facing roof and an Outback Inverter system and six Aquion 48-volt batteries manage the electrical storage and conversion to the usual AC (alternating) current of our 1,180 square foot home.

 

We rented another home for the 9 months it took to get through this building project that was also off-grid solar. It had lead-acid batteries and I had a taste of monthly checks of the batteries and addition of distilled water. I could hear the boiling liquid in the batteries on sunny mornings. I used a hygrometer to check the condition of the batteries with coaching from a neighbor. I knew to be careful with any acid spillover and scrubbed away corrosion with a bicarbonate of soda bath. When our electricity suddenly disappeared one day, I asked our solar contractor at the new house to look at the system. He found a loose connection where acid had totally eaten away the bolt connection. He quickly fixed it and it all worked again. It was a lesson in the importance of careful maintenance with lead-acid batteries.

 

Six Aquion S20+ saltwater batteries sit behind the house in their own shelter, storing electricity each day.

Six Aquion S20+ saltwater batteries sit behind the house in their own shelter, storing electricity each day.

I generally like new technologies because they often demystify existing technology. I am a new adopter with home computer devices but I am not usually a new adopter with mechanical or electrical systems. Off-grid solar systems seemed to teeter on that uncomfortable edge of being a little too technical for me. But we took the plunge into off-grid solar for good reasons. We like getting away from fossil fuels. We love supporting new technologies that make sense. We love the idea of not having an energy bill monthly. It was simply cheaper up front with the great tax credits from the state and federal government. So, HOW DID IT GO?

 

It’s been great, actually.

 

  • We have no electrical bill at all. On-grid charges in Hawaii are 48 cents a kilowatt hour, about 4 times the rate in most of the U.S.
  • Our viewscape of the ocean is uninterrupted by power poles. On-grid we would have had to install about $20,000 in ugly power poles, that due to the easements, would have obscured our view. Here you have to drill into solid rock to put in transmission poles and that doesn’t come cheap or easy.
  • An Outback Invert regulates the system and converts the DC storage to AC current for the home.

    An Outback Invert regulates the system and converts the DC storage to AC current for the home.

    The entire system we ended up with cost $24,000, but tax credits give back $11,500. Payback for this system from savings with no electric bill is likely about four or five years.

  • We worried that a 2.475 kilowatt system might not be enough to support our needs so living with it has been a learning experience. We usually draw down the batteries about 15% each night with daily use of a refrigerator, microwave, low-speed overhead fans, lighting and electronics. We also run the washing machine once or twice a week. If we get four hours of good sunlight on any given day, it brings the batteries back up to 100% by noon.
  • It would take seven days of no sun at all to draw down the system to 0 and that just doesn’t happen here. The system has a generator backup system that we likely will never need. With saltwater batteries it is okay to draw batteries down below 50% (a bad idea with lead-acid batteries).
  • We installed propane for cooking and a dryer because stoves and dryers require 220-volt power. Our system only produces 110 volts, a choice we made to save some installation dollars.
  • We went with a Solahart 80-gallon unit for hot water at an extra cost of $7,000 with a 30% federal tax credit (so $5,000 as an after-tax expense.) A heat pump would have met the state requirement for being solar powered because it would get its energy from our photovoltaic cells and would have cost one-fourth as much. We didn’t fully understand this until we were committed on the Solahart system. It works well and we are happy with it, but the heat pump option would have been easier and less expensive and if we had to do it over, we would probably go that route.
  • The control panel shows us the level of charge at any time we wish to check.

    The control panel shows us the level of charge at any time we wish to check.

    We simply have no maintenance requirements with the saltwater batteries. Checking the battery storage level daily is reassuring, but is not really necessary for the system performs as promised. RES, a family-owned business in Honokaa, has been our contractor and their installation work went very well and it all works as expected.

 

Certainly, there will be lessons to be learned over time. Aquion batteries are sealed, require no maintenance and should last 20 to 30 years, but time will tell. This is technology available only in the last few years so we

A Solahart 80 gallon collector heats and stores water for our home.

A Solahart 80 gallon collector heats and stores water for our home.

took the risk of seeing how long these batteries will last, having only the manufacturer’s projections.

 

The tax credit incentives provided by the federal government and most state governments are “window in time” opportunities. Eventually the window will close and those incentives will disappear, but they are making affordable solar energy systems a great bargain in most situations. If you haven’t looked into the costs and potential return on investment, now is the time to take a look. The sun will always be shining for you but you have to have the right system to take advantage of it for your home or business.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

Festival of 1000 Bowls

IMG_3105We recently stopped by the Cool Fusion: Festival of 1000 Bowls held by the Donkey Mill Art Center at Keauhou Shopping Center south of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, with only a little idea of what the 4-hour event held in store for us. It was lunchtime and a Somen Noodle lunch is part of the fun of this event highlighting local pottery.

 

For $20 in advance of the event or $25 at entry you may pick a pottery bowl from the specified tables to use that day and take home. A volunteer with an iPad and Square app stands by to let you use a credit card to pay. Then you can shop at the other tables with pottery items to purchase, listen to local musicians or the Innovations Youth Orchestra or join one of two lines for food.

 

IMG_3097Volunteers served up home-style Somen noodles or gluten-free rice noodles. We could add up to eight or nine items of choice including a variety of veggies, kelp, shitake mushrooms, wasabi and fresh ginger. Home-style soy-based soup finishes the dish. We milled around, enjoyed the noodles and went back for seconds. The price includes as many visits to the food table as you wish. For $15 you can buy a pottery sake cup and taste sake samples or you can enjoy iced Kona coffee and tea for free.

 

I like this approach to fundraising because it directly supports the mission of the organization. Pottery sales support local potters, many of whom learned the craft at the DMAC. The food honors the many Japanese-American coffee and macadamia nut farmers that live in this area. The entertainment is local and very much a part of the arts scene for the community.

 

IMG_3100 (1)Too often smaller organizations hold bake sales, car washes and rummage sales to raise funds. These do not usually match the organizational purpose or build a stronger image for the sponsor. When the fundraising event is programmatically aligned with the mission, it works at all levels to build brand. Repeating the event annually usually allows fine-tuning each year to improve profitability. This was the Ninth Annual Festival of 1000 Bowls and it seems to have growing support in the community, fun for residents and tourists alike.

 

Fundraising can be a tedious chore for nonprofit organizations. When events are both purposeful programs and successful in building revenue, everyone has a better time.

 

Tim Merriman

 

Encouraging a Community of Arts

Today we stopped by the Donkey Mill Art Center just south of Holualoa, Hawaii, and enjoyed a small but fascinating exhibit based on area artists taking the challenge of creating a unique work of art from one eight foot two by four, the most basic unit in wood home construction. The variety of results achieved by the artists inspired us.

 

By Kathleen Dunphry

By Kathleen Dumphry

I actually liked all of the pieces to varying degree. The burnt one to create charcoal to write on a graffiti panel, the carved birds and chameleon, the large colorful face, the sidewinder and the people figures were my favorites (my names for the examples, not the names provided by the artists). The Art Center invited the artists to participate in this year’s event, but may offer a more open event in the future that would allow anyone to submit a creative 2x4x8’ entry.

 

We have lived near Holualoa the past eight months while building a new home near Kealakekua Bay about fifteen miles further south. Holualoa is a charming heritage community that has seen good times and tough times over the last century and a half with the economic challenges of growing sugar cane, coffee and avocado on the rugged terrain of Hualalai, one of the five

Bus Stop by Kate and Will Jacobson.

Bus Stop by Kate and Will Jacobson.

volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawaii. But even before European and Asian farmers began larger scale production of those crops, the area comprised part of the ancient Kona Field System that Hawaiians used to raise breadfruit and other crops. In recent years Holualoa has become well known, not only for its exceptional Kona Coffee, but for the many artists and art shops in the two-block downtown area.

 

Started in 1994, Donkey Mill Art Center states their vision as”

 

We are a gathering place where people develop as creative, conscious and healthy human beings through art, education and experience.

 

Charcoal by April Matthews.

Charcoal by April Matthews.

They offer art education and experiences to people of all ages and abilities at the center, which is a beautifully restored part of the agricultural history of the community. Holualoa hosts a “community stroll” one Friday evening each month that keeps the varied creative businesses and cafes open later than usual to invite everyone to stop by and enjoy “pupus” (snacks), beverages and local music while celebrating the artistic creations of the community.

 

Several thoughts come to mind from looking at the important work of Donkey Mill Art Center.

  • Communities with an artistic vision create a very strong sense of place that brings people, stories, and ideas together to grow and embrace heritage.
  • A simple challenge like “make something creative from an 8 foot 2X4” can demonstrate the depth and power of creativity in any community.
  • Cultural heritage, agricultural identity and artistic endeavors create a beautiful community fabric of expression, a stronger identity.

 

Sidewinder by Ken Little.

Sidewinder by Ken Little.

Art centers are often seen in large metropolitan communities but this one in a small town makes the point that the arts help us identify our own sense of self and place and could be in any community. The creative 2x4x8 exhibit could be used by nature centers, zoos, aquariums, museums and parks as a way of bringing attention to recycling, reuse, biodiversity, and any number of other concepts. Creative expression is a great way to engage people of all ages and build a stronger community. Kudos to the Donkey Mill Art Center.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

Mass Media Ethics in Films and Videos

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Confessions-of-a-Wildlife-Filmm

Early in my career I delivered snake programs with live snakes for people to touch or see at a state park. Each year my live snake show at the Illinois State Fair would draw four or five daily audiences of hundreds. I was trying to provide an alternate narrative to the misinformation about snakes delivered through movies, TV news reports and friends’ flawed stories, exaggerated over time. One of my examples from that time period, the 1970s:

 

Remember Tarzan movies with Johnnie Weismueller? Tarzan is walking through the African jungle, an Austalian cockatoo sings from the treetops, an American alligator yawns in the river nearby, a Central American jaguar growls from the underbrush and a South American boa constrictor falls 5,000 miles sideways from a tree landing right on Tarzan’s chest. The 200-pound man wrestles the 15-pound snake with only his bare hands and a 10-inch knife. Most of what we hear and see about snakes is just as bizarre and just as made-up as that scenario.

 

Movies back then employed stock footage from diverse sources to tell their stories. Accuracy and ethics were not discussed. But decades later, it seems little has changed, or has it? We expect movies based on fiction to present unbelievable events and we overlook things that are unrealistic since it’s supposed to be entertainment, but what if credible non-fiction videographers and storytellers do that same thing?

 

Animal Planet, National Geographic Explorer and Discovery channels provide cable programming on diverse nature and culture topics. From Shark Week to Rattlesnake Republic to Finding Bigfoot, these programs attempt to build an audience with seemingly real content. Are their producers concerned about accuracy, conservation issues and the ethical treatment of animals?

 

Chris Palmer is a successful wildlife videographer who teaches about his profession at American University. In a recent TED talk he spoke candidly about the ethical choices a filmmaker makes routinely. Much of what we have seen and enjoyed in video storytelling about wildlife is a blend of real footage shot in the wilds and staged shots that help tell the story. The public is usually disappointed when they find out that seemingly realistic views into the private lives of animals are often confections, not the amazing videography they seem to be.

 

Palmer points out that our very best cable channels about animals now tilt heavily towards overly dramatized dangers. Rattlesnake Republic on the Animal Planet follows four groups of rattlesnake hunters to varied setting for roundups that make a spectacle of animal cruelty. On another program, “researchers” seek the mythical creature, Bigfoot. Pseudoscience gets better ratings than real science and program executives give us what we want, not what we need. Chris Palmer ends his TED talk with his thoughts on what we might do to improve the situation. I urge you to listen to his talk and consider his ideas.

 

Nature centers, zoos, museums, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries seem to be the logical alternative for people to learn about the real world and counter what they think they know from sensational but inaccurate and overdramatized cable shows. But it may be a challenge to draw people away from their videos and TVs to take part in activities based in the real world. How do you compete with and/or complement the virtual programming in your area?

 

– Tim Merriman

 

 

 

The Power of Real People

Using photos of real people on signs and exhibits is an especially powerful method of telling the stories of communities. Here are some examples we have seen around the world that were interesting choices connecting visitors to real people in the region.

The people of the Warm Springs area are shown on life-size cutouts behind the museum stage reminding you that the Paiute and Wasco people still live nearby.

The Native American  people of the Warm Springs area in Oregon are shown on life-size cutouts behind the museum stage reminding you that the Warm Springs, Paiute and Wasco people still live nearby.

The Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute people of Oregon share their stories in the Warm Springs Museum and their images appear beside the projection screen in the museum theater. Cultural stories could be told just with artifacts and artist’s drawings as is done in some places, but photos of local people help visitors understand that this community is still here and the people in it serve as your hosts.

This sign at the Mamu Tropical Skywalk explains that you are visiting the traditional lands of the Mamu people. That alone would not make much of a connection to the community.

This sign at the Mamu Tropical Skywalk explains that you are visiting the traditional lands of the Mamu people. That alone would not make much of a connection to the community.

Other signs like this one have photos of elders and community members with text that interprets their community.

Other signs like this one have photos of elders and community members with text that interprets their community.

The signs are engaging and the photos really keep the Mamu people on your mind as you look at the beautiful landscape. The highly reflective material and text very low on the signs make reading a bit difficult. Those are design choices to be considered when placing signs along a trail. It is easier to read text if at chest or eye level.

The signs are engaging and the photos really keep the Mamu people on your mind as you look at the beautiful landscape.

The highly reflective material and text placed very low on the signs make these signs at Mamu Tropical Skywalk challenging to read, but the intent in using Aboriginal community members as spokespeople is sound. It would be easier for visitors to make the important connection to the stories of local people if text was placed closer to average eye level and sign material made non-reflective.

Dr. Chris Mayer worked with Vivamos Major, a non-profit, in the Santa Clara La Laguna by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

Dr. Chris Mayer worked with Vivamos Major, a non-profit, in the Santa Clara La Laguna by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala to plan and develop The Refuge Trail using local images.

The signs placed on The Refuge Trail at Lake Atitalan used artist’s images of local people to create a strong connection with the project. The planner  engaged local artists and artisans in designing and building the trail and signage so they had a great sense of ownership and pride in their creative skills.
(Photo by Chris Mayer from Put the Heart Back In Your Community.)

This sign in the highlands of Malaysia at a Semai village show one of the guides who lead ecotours into the forest nearby.

This sign at a Semai village in the highlands of Malaysia  show one of the local guides with a Rafflesia flower.

The Malaysian Nature Society assisted this Semai village economically in shifting away from selling bird-winged butterflies and Rafflesia buds from the world’s largest flower to museum shops with ecotourism training in guest experience design. When you visit this charming village in the highlands a guide from the community takes you into the forest to see the Rafflesia, the butterflies and amazing insects found only there. Income from ecotourism is much greater than the income from selling organisms and they are now protecting their local forests and its inhabitants.

In Singapore they have life-sized posters of local customer service agents with an inviting message.

In Singapore life-sized posters of local customer service agents invite guests to learn more.

In Singapore, the history of the community is shared on interpretive signs on the streets. These interesting cutouts of life-sized photos of local customer service workers made it clear that they are proud of their friendly welcome for visitors. Since staff cannot always be on duty, the sign lets you know that assistance is available.

It is important that representing real recognizable people on signs and exhibits is done tastefully and with permission of those whose images are used. Talking about indigenous communities and local guides may be good but photos of them provide a much more direct connection to the community.

– Tim Merriman

Your Message Could Be Many Places

Signs, exhibits, videos and TVs are the most common media selected for interpretive messages at natural and cultural heritage sites and in communities. There are some variations on these approaches that will convey a message powerfully and creatively. Here are a few to think about:

 

You find Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch card on an exhibit or in the hand of a volunteer but you carry around in your wallet because the message is helpful and business card size.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch cards are given out on an exhibit or by staff or volunteers. The card can be  carried around in a wallet so that the information is readily available when buying seafood after leaving the aquarium.

A well thought out message on a food lockbox at Yosemite reminds people to protect the bears and yourself by storing food properly.

Although the design could be improved, a well thought out message on a food lockbox at Yosemite reminds people to protect the bears and yourself by storing food properly.

Even the sewer grate in Monterey has a message about where dumped liquids go in the environment.

Even the sewer grate in Monterey has a message about where dumped liquids go in the environment.

 

Entry tickets become keepsakes at many places and the message stays around, a reminder of an important story.

Entry tickets become keepsakes at many places, a reminder of the important stories found at the site.

Bathroom messages at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo share relevant messages to where you are.

Bathroom messages at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo share relevant messages about solid waste management.

Murals share heritage stories in very public places like this one in Philadelphia.

Murals share heritage stories in very public places like this one in Philadelphia.

Even electrical utility box in Old Town Fort Collins is a location for a mural, a visual message.

Even the electrical utility box in Old Town Fort Collins is a location for a mural, a visual message.

The El Paso Airport places memorable messages from their tourists in the floor for new arrivals to read near the baggage claim.

The El Paso Airport places memorable messages from residents in the floor for new arrivals to read near the baggage claim, answering the question “what’s special about El Paso?

A museum in Philadelphia uses outdoor building walls as a place to share local poetry.

A museum in Philadelphia uses outdoor building walls as a place to share local poetry.

The Rainforest Cafe invites donations through a unique use of a parking meter with a clear message.

The Rainforest Cafe invites donations through a unique use of a parking meter with a clear message.

Rainforest Cafe uses messaging in varied creative ways with napkins, table tents and menus.

Rainforest Cafe uses messaging in varied creative ways with napkins, table tents and menus.

Kids are invited to create artworks that have a message and then they are used as the sign.

Kids are invited to create artwork with a message that is then incorporated into sign design.

Public sculpture in this heritage community near Perth, Australia, reminds guests of the fishing traditions of the area.

Public sculpture in this heritage community near Perth, Australia, reminds guests of the fishing traditions of the area.

This path near Perth explains the challenges of new immigrants arriving with limited personal resources.

This path near Perth explains the challenges of new immigrants arriving with limited personal resources.

Visiting natural and cultural heritage sites and communities will become more interesting if we broaden our view of where messages can be shared.

– Tim Merriman