October 2023 Report

October has continued to be dry, very little rain, though the clouds are gathering.  The vanilla is flowering strongly in Tegalsaat, not so much in Jeruk Mancing.  We have 400 flowers a day in Tegalsaat, perhaps 100 in Jeruk Mancing.  Most of the vanilla which has been damaged by the rain is dormant, just waiting for rain, but the strong vines are pushing ahead, especially in the new part of Garden 5.  Even the new vines in Garden 10 are producing flowers here and there, they aren’t even 2 years old.  But the young vines in the newer gardens are going slowly, in need of rain.  We are definitely seeing that the taller shade trees give much better vanilla.

I personally pollinate Garden 10 if I am not away.  This is upwards of 50 flowers each day, which takes me a most enjoyable 40 minutes to an hour.  I do this to ensure I know exactly what is going on with the vanilla, to find the problems and solutions.  It is fascinating to work through the wrinkles and try to discover why not all the pollinated flowers take.

Pollination is a process where we split the tube of the flower to give access to the sexual parts, raise a separating flap and press the male part containing pollen into the female part.  The wrinkles come from the delicacy of the parts, which can fatally break, not getting the flap properly out of the way, pressing too hard on the anther to dislodge the pollen so it falls uselessly away and not pressing hard enough so it doesn’t stick.

The failure rate is high, perhaps 15%, which is fine because there are always too many flowers.  Pollinate them all, and you get low quality vanilla.  Nevertheless, I want to know WHY.

I have noticed that the majority of the style, the female parts, have two black dots, but occasionally these are white.  Perhaps this indicates not ready?  If the flower is not pollinated, the next day the pollen is clamped hard against the style – sadly with the flap in the way.  Perhaps we are pressing too hard to get the pollen out?  Would it be better to just remove the flap surgically?  A lot more effort and difficult, so possibly not worthwhile.  I shall experiment.

But the number one reason we feel is that the vanilla is smarter than us, and the pollination fails because the nutrition is insufficient.  Certainly, we notice that some flowers on scrawny branches are smaller, as are the final flowers which tend to fail.  If we pollinate too many, the branch shrinks visibly and the vanilla beans are smaller.

How many flowers to pollinate is an art, which each of our pollinators must master.  This is why we put one person in charge of each garden, and that person gets a bonus from their garden.  In the meantime, I experiment.  My best to date is 26 beans on one bunch, but five were too small.  But we can increase with stronger branches.  Vanilla flowers when the vines are stressed and weak, but also when it is overflowing with nutrition.  This is the state to which we are striving.

I am convinced we can achieve the stated goal of 5 kilos of green beans per vine, and optimistic that in many cases we will achieve ten, indeed, often a lot more. My experimental tree has been savaged by a cockatoo, but we still have 20 bunches with an average of over 10 beans each, which is 200 beans giving us 3.4 kg, more if the buds keep coming – and they are!  There are more bunches appearing, and we have some with more than 20 beans.  I think the average weight of the beans will be higher than the estimated 17g as well. We just need a run of a few years of normal weather and we can confirm these findings.

Our original calculations were based on 5kg per vine, subsequently reduced to 2kg because of the weather, with only 60% of the trees flowering after 5 years.  I believe we shall get to 95% flowering and producing an average of over 5kg within 5 years.  The new methods are giving us huge vines with massive, heavy beans and a mass of vegetative power from the number of leaves.  I think we shall see the average weight of the beans increase as well as the number.  Impatient as we all are for success, given patience we are going to be producing something special.

It is noticeable that where we have kept the shade trees low, they just are not strong enough to handle the weight of the vines.  While we are growing the Gliricidia taller, we aren’t sure if they are strong enough in the long term, so we are introducing other shade trees to replace them, hopefully ones that will give alternative crops, like avocado.

We are discovering green vanilla ready for harvest in North and East Bali, which we intend to buy. Sufficient investment funds should be with us as the crops ripen over the next few months. Processing is going well, and we are sending samples off for testing.

Our focus this month has been on bringing in more investment, which has been our problem area.  We have an accomplished sales person with a great deal of experience, Zak Edmonds, on board and he has started well.  We currently have $200,000 promised in the near future, promises of the sort which have tended to come good, as they are from a number of people.

We are still waiting on Global Asia, which has not yet provided us with a formal Letter of Intent or proof of funds.  This caused us some concern, but they said they had to rewrite and lodge their Articles of Association (Akta).  I understand this has now been done, and they are flying me to Manado to meet their people on the 8th, intimating that is when they will make payment.

This means we are on target for paying dividends in 2025, but we need more investment in order to pay a dividend next year.  This is because we need the factory finished and to be able to buy a lot of green vanilla, which we won’t do without the investment.  Buying the green vanilla is Phase 2, which brings a large community of farmers into our family.

Vanilla extract production is coming along, no problems, but we cannot specify the vanillin content until the laboratory is ready.  When we are happy with the product, we shall have to decide whether to sell the product or wait until the laboratory is ready to confirm.  In other words, do we bring in some cash by selling the intermediate product, or wait?  Decision not made yet.  We shall be bringing in a design team to create the branding for the labels when the final product is ready.  In the long term, we see this as our main product line.  All processing done in Indonesia.

We are about to cover the trial lobster ponds with netting, to allow us to keep them in shallower water and in the next few weeks we shall be putting berried females in these ponds.  At the same time, we shall create some multi-level ponds, by which I mean different depths.  Should make collecting them easier and less stressful as well as seeing if that improves mortality.

The lobster pond restaurant is still on the cards, but probably first we shall set up a coffee shop at the current office location, offering coffee, tea and snacks, with free swimming and walks around the vanilla plantation, along the river to Tirta Empul and quiet road running; sadly lacking facilities in nearby Ubud.  The long-awaited Bali Starling breeding program is now happening, not in the large aviary where they damage the vanilla but in smaller aviaries.  These birds, plus cockatoos and wild birds, will be fed in the café on bird tables, offering another attraction.  The cockatoos, currently a nuisance, will be a further attraction.  Make the damn things useful! We are negotiating with surrounding villages to make the area a local reserve, and working with existing tourist development.  The locals will benefit because we will sell their products in the café, employ them as guides and rangers and encourage and help them to set up tourist attractions.

October investment was Rp 160,000,000, investment in 2023 is Rp 1,584,873,067 and total investment so far is Rp 9,577,680,887.  We are really beginning to take off now, and if we secure just 20% of current interest, we will be able to close further investment in the near future.

Rex Sumner

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