BRADENTON, Fla. - In the tropical climes of South Florida, there are researchers trying to breed the state's next commercial crop.
It could be vanilla.
Products like vanilla extract and beans that flavor ice creams and lace perfumes come from plants in the genusVanilla, part of the orchid family.
Florida's farmers might want to look into the plant's tasty potential as a valuable secondary crop.
The spice could be nice for Florida's agriculture and may help solve a budding global dilemma.
Consumers take the world's second most-prized spice (after saffron) for granted, but the vanilla industry is facing major challenges:
- Vanilla prices have skyrocketed in recent years as major food brands attempt to go all-natural, dumping the artificial flavor vanillin. Vanilla is now more valuable than silver, selling for around $600 a kilogram.
- Climate change and geopolitical challenges are impacting world vanilla suppliers like Madagascar and Mexico, contributing to price rise and global supply instability. In 2017, a cyclone hit Madagascar, killing at least 81 people and damaging 30 percent of the crop. Vanilla farmers on the island country risk their lives defending the precious crops from thieves.
- Most of the industry currently relies on one species of vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia, leaving the bulk of the world's supply susceptible to an opportunistic disease or pest. The banana industry is currently facing such a crisis as Panama disease obliterates the world's most popular banana, the Cavendish.
Vanilla production in Florida could open up a niche economy for the state and help diversify its agricultural offerings.
"Many growers are looking at alternative crops not only as a new or additional revenue stream, but also as a way to have some risk diversity with ag," said Sonia Tighe, executive director of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. The association is an advocacy group for Florida growers that funds and promotes research of specialty crops.
Matt Adair is the lead researcher with the Florida Research Center for Agricultural Sustainability. The center primarily works with citrus growers and former citrus growers, many of whom are still reeling from citrus greening.
Adair says that they are always looking for promising new crops.
"A lot of growers, at least in citrus, have either sold to development or they have pushed their citrus farms and put cattle on them to keep their ag exempt status," Adair said. "They're looking for new things to grow."
Recently, the center began exploring the possibilities of crops like peaches, hops and pomegranates.
As for vanilla, Adair says, "Anybody would be interested."
To make things even sweeter, vanilla farming in Florida would not necessarily require more acreage.
Existing tree orchards could double as vanilla farms, said Alan Chambers, an assistant professor of genetics and the breeding of tropical fruit with University of Florida.
Avocado trees, with their height and shady canopy, would be an ideal structure for vine-like vanilla plants to climb.
"We call them tutor trees," Chambers said. "In terms of co-cropping you want a shade tree that's long-lived and doesn't require a lot of chemical inputs like fungicides or insecticides. It's a lower cost option for getting into the market."
"Co-cropping" the vanilla with avocado, citrus or nut trees on existing farms would mean getting more use out of the same piece of land, a win-win for growers and the environment.
Compared to traditional monoculture, the dual system would have its challenges.
"There's a reason that we grow monocultures; it's much simpler to control pests and optimize production," Chambers said. "But we like the idea of same land, more sources of income."
Another option for growing vanilla in Florida is monoculture in shade houses. The simple and relatively inexpensive structures can sustain the right conditions for plants to thrive and enable more intensive production.
Chambers' vanilla research started with some prodding from his boss via email.
"It was a Scientific American article discussing some of the problems they are having with vanilla," Chambers said. "Some of these are cyclic issues with increases in prices and challenges with supply and quality of supply. So I started looking into it. The problem with orchids is that you tend to get obsessed very quickly."
Chambers soon found a seemingly overlooked paper. It detailed an attempt to grow a commercial vanilla industry in Puerto Rico in the early 1900s. The efforts had promise, and were even subsidized by the Roosevelt administration, but tapered off when industrial production took over the island's economy in the 1940s.
Still, the paper offers one example of how such an industry might work: individual growers combining into co-ops that would then process and sell beans to the flavor industries.
According to Tighe, it's a model that has potential.
Growers of citrus, tomatoes and sweet corn have successfully utilized co-ops to boost their selling power.
And with the recent trend toward eating locally and sustainably, Floridians may want to buy vanilla straight off the farm.
"Who doesn't want something that's local and delicious?" Chambers said.
There are years of research to do before vanilla is determined commercially viable in Florida.
Existing varieties of vanilla will grow in the state, but Chambers says there is a lot of room for improvement.
A piece of the puzzle might come from remote South Florida swamps, the home of the state's native vanilla species. Their genetic material could help create a better commercial crop.
There are four species of vanilla orchid native to Florida, all of them endangered by habitat destruction and illegal collection.
"A single major hurricane event could literally wipe out a significant portion of the existing population, if not all of it," Chambers said.
Photographer and orchid enthusiast Premnath Subrahmanyam is the founder of the educational website flnativeorchids.com.
Subrahmanyam has photographed three of the native species of vanilla in their natural habitats, and the fourth, Vanilla dilloniana, in a private collection.
"My first vanilla species was actually an incidental encounter on an excursion to chronicle ghost orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand," Subrahmanyam said.
For Subrahmanyam, the thrill of seeking out native orchids has become a lifelong passion.
His treks to document them on film require geo-coordinates provided by trusting naturalists, a good GPS system and some grit.
For some time, Vanilla mexicana was presumed extinct in the wild. When a population was rediscovered, Subrahmanyam sought it out.
"The baygall swamps where these grow are hot and sticky, with unforgiving, shin-deep mud that one must traverse to see these plants in the wild," Subrahmanyam said.
The native vanillas' ability to survive in Florida's sometimes extreme conditions might be useful.
Chambers says the native species do not have commercial potential as they are, but he is interested in their genetics.
By combining the best genes from native and non-native varieties, Chambers and colleague Elias Bassil will attempt to create new and superior varieties of vanilla.
Chambers describes the process as "going from wild material, which is pretty much what we have now, to something more domesticated — including higher yields, less disease, better taste and improved production qualities."
Blueberries and strawberries went through a similar cultivation process in Florida. It is just a matter of investing the time and resources in vanilla. Thanks to modern technology, vanilla's journey will be much quicker. Chambers says it is a five to 20 year prospect.
Then there is the taste factor.
"There is so much flavor chemistry work still to be done, especially for new hybrids," Chambers said. "I have a very heavy focus on fruit quality for each of my tropical species, but vanilla is an especially fun one."
The end result could be delicious new varieties of vanilla with their own distinct flavor profiles.
"Considering we've had vanilla for hundreds of years, if they would have done this a hundred years ago we'd already have amazing kinds of vanilla. So someone's got to start," Chambers said.
There is another reason Chambers has hope for vanilla in Florida. It is already being grown commercially somewhere with a relatively similar climate.
The Vanillerie is a small vanilla farm on the west side of Hawaii's Big Island.
The Vanillerie is a prime example of agritourism, or the idea of bringing visitors onto a farm to see firsthand how a crop is produced.
Guy Cellier owns The Vanillerie, which he operates with farm manager JR Pataray. The pair started out in the tree industry converting sugar cane lands into timber plantations. That was in 1996.
"We were done about 10 years later," Cellier said. "Somebody suggested that we should try something that was a lot smaller and more valuable than timber trees, which are big and awkward. We got some materials, some vanilla vine from a man named Mr. Kadaoko. He had a vision for vanilla being the next agricultural crop on the big island. We played around with it for a couple of years and got it to grow."
Gradually, it became their new trade.
"We decided that it could be a good agritourism crop for us given that Hawaii is a tourist destination," Cellier said.
Cellier and Pataray's six-acre farm is located just two miles from the main airport on the "tourist side" of the island.
Travelers come by the busload to tour the shade houses and visit the gift shop. Fresh vanilla ice cream made with the farm's vanilla awaits at the end of the journey.
"We have created a place where people can come and see how things grow and learn about a plant that they use but don't know anything about," Cellier said. "It's a way for tourists to be exposed to agriculture. It's a way for us to add value to our crop."
Cellier started out growing all of the farm's vanilla in shade houses. Recently, they expanded to growing vanilla on trees.
"Vanilla in the wild grows up trees," Cellier said. "So what we've done is planted a small orchard. That's what we would recommend to small growers in Florida."
Currently, all of The Vanillerie's plants are the commercial variety, Vanillia planifolia. Cellier is interested in diversifying his stock if research like Chambers' is successful.
"That does make us a bit vulnerable, because if there were a pest or a disease it could wipe us out," Cellier said. "We are aware of that. But until University of Florida folks or somebody else takes it on and comes up with more productive disease resistant varieties, we lack it."
Cellier frequently mentions Chambers' research on his tours.
"We're very grateful that somebody is looking at how to produce vanilla on a larger scale," Cellier said.
In Hawaii, vanilla requires little input to thrive aside from daily watering.
It takes two to three years for vines to become established and start to flower, but Cellier notes that growing the vanilla on trees quickens the process.
The real work comes when it is time to pollinate the plants in spring.
"It is labor intensive," Cellier said. "Every single flower has to be hand pollinated. That is, until Alan and the other researchers can figure out how to get self-pollination to work."
The fruits of the labor are vanilla bean pods, which The Vanillerie values at around $10 each.
"We grow perhaps 30,000 beans a year," Cellier said. "We're probably the biggest grower in Hawaii, but we're still pretty tiny."
The Vanillerie sells beans, extract and body care products made with their vanilla in their gift shop and online.
Cellier also knows of another good use for vanilla: craft beer. For his last birthday, local brewery Big Island Brewhaus made a porter and an ale with The Vanillerie's vanilla.
"I really enjoyed that," Cellier said.
At the Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, the vanilla plants are growing.
"We're going to see which plants do the best here and then release them to growers," Chambers said.
New varieties of vanilla might still be years away, but the early stages of research could help Floridians start growing vanilla right now.
The research could also produce some much needed information.
Despite centuries of vanilla cultivation, not much time has been invested in improving growing practices.
In Florida, there are hobbyist growers and nurseries already working with vanilla, but they run into some common problems.
Kathy Crowley of Crowley Nursery in Sarasota has a vanilla vine growing on her property, but it has never flowered, and she is not certain of which variety it is.
"It's a larger leaf vanilla," Crowley said. "It's climbing up a plant here, it's very happy but no flowers. We're about 20 miles from the beach so we get very cold. I'm just happy it's alive. I have about a thousand other plants to take care of so it's at the bottom of my list."
There are also few reliable stocks of plants. Vanilla plants bought online or at plant shows often turn out to be something other than what was advertised.
Richard Moyroud owns Mesozoic Landscapes, a native plant nursery in Palm Beach County.
Years ago, Moyroud was sold a vanilla plant tagged as Vanilla planifolia, the commercial variety.
It grew, flowered, and developed bean pods, but the strangest thing kept happening.
The pods fell off before ripening.
"What I ended up finding out is that the vanilla supplied to me is not the real commercial vanilla. It's an ornamental one that doesn't produce anything much," Moyroud said.
For now, one small but reliable source for vanilla is Plantio la Orquidea in Sarasota.
Rafael Romero owns the nursery, which is an offshoot of a family business in Venezuela.
The Sarasota nursery specializes in orchids that do well naturally in Florida.
"Our secret is benign neglect," Romero said.
Romero sells cuttings of the commercial variety of vanilla, but he does not have enough plants to supply agricultural production.
When it comes to vanilla, the world owes a debt to indigenous American cultures.
The Totonac people of Mexico are thought to be the first cultivators of vanilla.
The Aztecs conquered the Totonacs in the 1400s and gained the spice, and it eventually became an ingredient in their xocoatl (chocolate) drink. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the 1500s and took vanilla back to Europe.
However, Europeans could not figure out how to pollinate the plants and produce the precious bean pods.
The next milestone in vanilla's agricultural history came in 1841, when a 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius made an important discovery. Albius was a slave in the French colony of Réunion when he developed a technique for hand pollinating the plants.
The method is still used today.
Moyroud, who pollinates his own plants, describes the process:
"There's a flap of tissue that you have to lift. It's almost like a two-handed operation but with toothpicks in your hand. Then you bend the pollinia that are above that flap down and underneath it. Then you pull out the toothpicks and bang, the pollinia are attached to the stigma. They are all self-fertile so you don't have to have cross-pollination."
The idea of co-cropping vanilla with a fruit tree also has roots in Central America.
Moyroud remembers learning about it in college. His class was assigned a book called "Plants, Man and Life" by Edgar Anderson.
"(Anderson) was in Central America and visited the gardens of native Guatemalan folk," Moyroud said.
Anderson observed what might look to the average person like an uncleared lot or a jungle. Upon closer inspection, it was a whole world of interdependent plants — similar to modern notions of permaculture.
Moyroud speculates that some of Florida's vanilla species may have been brought here by Native Americans in pre-Colombian times.
"It is almost certain that Native Americans had vanilla vines, had the Mexican vanilla vine, growing in South Florida," Moyroud said.
That does not mean that the plants do not belong here, though.
Moyroud has been working with native plants for a long time. Over the years, his definition of native has changed.
"Plants don't observe political boundaries," Moyroud said.
Moyroud notes that much of Florida is part of a wider region that shares flora with the Bahamas, Cuba, Yucatan Peninsula and the Greater Antilles. Anything that thrives in another part of the region will probably thrive in Florida.
"We have seasonal summer rains, we have hurricanes, we have droughts and we have limestone soil," Moyroud said. "Vanilla fits in beautifully."
At Plantio la Orquidea, Rafael Romero recently started growing a specimen of Vanilla barbellata, one of the native species.
Romero, a biologist, is hopeful for the restoration of native orchids like the vanilla species, but he has some skepticism.
"We can reproduce them. That's not the problem," Romero said. "It's the habitat. The natural habitat is destroyed, so there is nowhere to put them back."
Romero and wife Tina Romero grow orchids of all kinds from seed. The plants eventually make it out into suburbia.
In Coral Gables, Fairchild Botanical Garden has an entire program dedicated to growing and reintroducing native Florida orchids called the Fairchild Million Orchid Project.
The five year program has an end goal of installing one million orchids in urban environments in Miami and surrounding cities.
To date, more than 150,000 plants have been placed.
Every tree that hosts an orchid has a metal tag with a QR code inscribed in it. An app called "Tracking One Million Orchids" allows users to scan the code and input information about the orchid.
"It's truly citizen science," said Jason Downing, orchid biologist with Fairchild.
The native vanillas are not part the orchid project, but Downing has specimens of all four varieties at Fairchild, where he is helping Chambers improve the germination process for growing them in the lab.
"All of the species are notoriously difficult to germinate," Downing said.
Vanilla, as the only orchid that produces edible fruit, may have a special ability to attract attention to the plight of its family.
"The more we can highlight multiple uses for native species, the more likely we are to get funding and protection that they deserve," Downing said. "Politicians don't care about stuff sitting out in the middle of the swamp. But if it has economic, political or agricultural implications, now you're bringing other stakeholders to the table."
"The conservation narrative around vanilla resonates with people in a way that most plants can't," Chambers said.
In Miami, the Fairchild Million Orchid Project is introducing a new generation of children to the wonders of Florida's orchids. School grounds are one of the primary sites for orchid reintroduction.
"The project is student driven," Downing said. "The earlier we get these kids involved in the process of restoration and conservation, the better off we are all going to be."
One day, those kids might be able to travel outside of the city and visit a vanilla farm, too.
"Just down the street from us you can go visit a guy that grows 30 different kinds of bananas," Chambers said. "You can tour the bananas, taste the bananas, buy bananas and plants. I could see something like that working just the same for vanilla."
"If there are people that want to try growing vanilla, we are here to help them," Chambers said.
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