Part 1 of 7
In 2005, when newlyweds Nathaniel Delafield and Sarah Osterhoudt said they were willing to accept a Peace Corps assignment anywhere in the world, the couple, raised in Upstate New York, never dreamed they would end up in a rural part of Madagascar helping vanilla bean farmers export their product to world markets. Neither had ever seen a vanilla bean vine. Their education began immediately when the farmers picked up the couple at the airport in a big 4X4 truck and drove them through the Mananara Nord Region in the northeast; at that time the area was a couple hundred miles away from the nearest telephone.
“They wanted to talk business right away,” remembers Nathaniel Delafield, co-founder of LAFAZA, which has been exporting vanilla products from Madagascar for the past 15 years. “The farmers told us, ‘we have the best vanilla in the world and you can help us. We need help making sure that the markets we are accessing are to the same standards of how we treat our products.’ We looked around at how remote they were, and we said how could they possibly know that?”
Nathaniel sent some vanilla bean samples to his brother, James Delafield, who happened to be in the US food industry and eventually became a co-founder of LAFAZA. Based in the Bay Area of California, James has been the company’s US distribution base and chief product specialist since 2005.
“We were able to send samples to the contacts James had in the food industry in the US and elsewhere. Every single response was ‘this is the best vanilla we’ve ever seen, how can you work with us? How can we help?’ The vanilla was already world class, which was an exciting place to start,” says Delafield. That was the start of their mission to bring the highest-quality vanilla to the world and create a fair-trade business model that is ethical and sustainable, something that had not been done yet in the Madagascar vanilla industry.
Vanilla is a very finicky crop requiring an intensive and highly specialized growing and curing process. In the next installment, we will look at the hard work, skill, knowledge and dedication needed to produce the best vanilla in the world.