Daily Inspiration: Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy – “Believe that you can do something noble”

Category under: Blog, Daily Inspiration

“Believe that you can do something noble” – Zachary Taffany

Meet Zachary Taffany. He calls himself “The Vanilla Evangelist.

My wife and I just met him – and listened to a pretty fascinating presentation – at the only vanilla bean farm in the USA – The Hawaiian Vanilla Co.

This is a long post before I get to the point of today’s inspiration, so let me just ramble till I get there.

You should know by now that I’m out in Hawaii for an event tomorrow; we came a few days early for a bit of downtime since it is a rather long trip. We’ve done the things that tourists are normally supposed to do – swim in the ocean (check), swim with the turtles (check), see the whales offshore (check), watch spectacular sunsets (check, check, check) and golf (double check.)

But my wife always likes to make sure that our R&R doesn’t just stand for ‘rest’ or ‘relaxation’ – she also will often line up some more cerebral activities in addition to vacation time  Hence, some of our past trips (particularly when our sons have been with us) have included a tour of a sugar cane factory in Australia, a tour of a mosque in Oman, a working ranch in Hawaii, and other similar adventures over the years.

Yesterday, she lined up a visit to a vanilla bean farm. And look, I was skeptical, but I’m always careful to balance our interests and respect her initiative, so off we went.

And I must say – my skepticism vanished! Part of that had to do with the story about the ‘farm’ itself – something very much like my “Be like Fiji” story that I will often share from the stage. (In essence, a small island nation deciding that it could establish a potato industry even though it previously did not have one). But part of it also had to do with the way the story was told by Zach. Look, as someone who makes a living speaking to people on the stage, I will admit that I have a very difficult time listening to other people give a presentation. I might be too jaded, too cynical, or simply too worn out from the cliches offered up from the stage by many of my counterparts.

That was not the case with Zach. Since the footprint of a vanilla farm is exceedingly small, there wasn’t much to tour. Instead, we sat under the bean enclosures and listened to a fascinating presentation about the plant, the industry, this particular location, the history of the farm, food recipes and so much more. The thing about a presentation like this is you quickly learn that you know absolutely nothing about the topic at hand and that yet, it is a deeply rich, complex, and fascinating topic. Vanilla beans? I never knew!

How unique is this industry? I can’t remember everything that was said – my mind was spinning – so I’ve cheated and have asked ChatGPT to summarize it for me:

I understand that the business of vanilla beans is very unique. Give me 10 bullet points that explain why it is unique, including issues on how it is grown, the scientific basis of the product, economics, rarity of growth, and more.

Certainly, the business of vanilla beans is indeed unique and multifaceted. Here are 10 key points that highlight its distinctiveness:

Orchid Origin: Vanilla beans come from the pod of an orchid species, primarily Vanilla planifolia. This is unique as most commercial food products don’t originate from orchids, which are generally known for their flowers, not edible products.

Labor-Intensive Pollination: Unlike many crops, vanilla orchids require hand pollination, as their natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, is only found in Mexico. This labor-intensive process contributes significantly to vanilla’s high cost.

Lengthy Growth Process: Vanilla pods take several months to mature after pollination and require careful monitoring. The entire growth cycle from planting to harvest can take up to three years.

Complex Curing Process: After harvest, vanilla beans undergo a lengthy and intricate curing process, which can take several months. This process is crucial for developing the beans’ distinctive flavor and aroma.

Climate and Soil Specificity: Vanilla orchids thrive only in specific climates and require rich, well-drained soil, limiting their cultivation to certain tropical regions around the equator, such as Madagascar, Indonesia, and Mexico.

Economic Importance: Vanilla is a significant economic crop for the countries that produce it. For example, in Madagascar, which produces most of the world’s vanilla, the industry is a major part of the national economy.

Price Volatility: The vanilla market is highly volatile. Factors like weather events, crop health, and political stability in producing countries can drastically affect global supply and prices.

Synthetic Alternatives: The majority of vanilla-flavored products use synthetic vanillin, derived from sources like lignin or guaiacol. This is because natural vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive and expensive spices in the world.

Biodiversity and Environmental Impact: The cultivation of vanilla can have environmental impacts, including deforestation and loss of biodiversity. Sustainable practices and certifications like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance are increasingly important.

Adulteration and Quality Control: Due to its high value, vanilla is often subject to adulteration and quality issues in the supply chain. Authenticity verification, through methods like gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, is essential for ensuring product quality.

These points illustrate the unique challenges and considerations in the vanilla bean industry, from its botanical peculiarities to its economic and environmental impacts.

As someone who regularly speaks about the future of agriculture, this was all spellbinding stuff for me when it comes to innovation and uniqueness. And yet, the story of this particular facility – the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. – is also unique in that there was never a vanilla industry in the US – until this operation came along. The story of the establishment of this facility is both magical and tragic; it was begun by an orchid enthusiast, one Jim Reddekkop, who learned that he could turn his passion into a product.

When Jim and Tracy Reddekopp purchased their property in Pa‘auilo back in 1998, they weren’t sure what they were going to build or grow. The two O‘ahu natives just knew that they wanted to get away from the rat race of Honolulu and raise their kids on a farm. They didn’t foresee becoming the country’s first and only commercial growers of vanilla, single-handedly creating a vanilla product industry in Hawai‘i, or that they would start a successful agribusiness that would draw thousands of visitors from around the world. No, back then they were sitting around the family dinner table trying to figure out what to do with the land.

“Originally, our goal was to raise our children on a farm,” says Jim Reddekopp. “It wasn’t until my mother-in-law asked what we were going to grow besides children that we really thought about what we were going to plant.” Tracy’s mother, an orchid enthusiast, had just taken a course at the Lyman Arboretum on O‘ahu and suggested growing vanilla bean orchids. The rest is history.

The idea of vanilla just sparked something in my brain,” says Reddekopp. “I started researching it, calling around to different agricultural departments and groups.”

Only one farmer called me back, and he said he had an uncle experimenting with vanilla orchids.” That uncle was Tom Kadooka from Kainaliu in South Kona. Reddekopp really wanted to pursue growing vanilla and thus began a mentoring friendship between the two men. “He [Kadooka] always felt that vanilla was a viable crop and I was the first student under him that really took it up. Mr. Kadooka was a real-life Mr. Miyagi (the famous martial arts mentor of the Karate Kid movie fame). You had to ask the right question to get the right answer.”

Over the next four years, the quiet and humble Kadooka patiently taught Reddekopp, showing him how to pollinate and cultivate the plants.

This story echoes to me the stage story I will often tell of the nascent potato industry in Fiji and my posts to ‘Be Like Fiji,” and resonated with me – it is a story of big goals, bold visions, and hardcore innovation. Go and read the story of the family on the Website for the Hawiaan Vanilla Co.

Sadly. Jim died of leukemia in 2020, and his son Ian took over the business – and brought in Zach to help out.

I’m still busy taking apart the many inspirational, entrepreneurial, and innovative lessons I learned through his talk – not to mention the science involving the industry – but I know a powerful statement when I hear one. At one moment, Zach was talking about how the Hawaiian Vanilla Co was working to build a co-op industry modeled on the Kona Coffee Company – and said, ‘We believe we are doing something noble,’ referencing the initiative to build a new industry on the island by supporting others who are getting involved in the vanilla bean industry. Where there was nothing – there could be something, if Zach and his team could help lead the way.

The interesting thing about Zach is that he gave up his previous career – as COO of a beer company and other executive positions – to take on this new and passionate challenge. At one point, he referenced how magical it was to serve multiple roles – as a spokesperson and tour guide, waiter (the lemonade was fantastic!), janitor, and IT support.  We’d found someone who turned their passion into a purpose! I immediately grabbed my phone and typed in the phrase, since I seem to find inspiration in the most magical of moments.

In today’s world of jaded attitudes about the future and with all the incessant political anger around us, it was wonderful to hear an original and passionate story of a company doing something positive for a region, for an industry, and for the future.

With that in mind, maybe you can start your day by asking yourself, “What can I do that matters?”

What can you do today that would be something noble?


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covers issues related to creativity, innovation and future trends.