Tropical storm Enawo seems to have given vanilla a fresh lease of life in Kerala with young farmers scouting for plant materials as the price of dried beans rally to Rs 25,000 per kg from virtually nothing. In March this year, Enawo wreaked havoc in Madagascar, which supplies around 80 % of the worlds’ vanilla demand, and damaged about 30% of the island’s vanilla crop. “Vanilla planting material is in great demand and enthusiastic farmers are scouting for them even paying high prices like Rs 100-150 per stem. It is too early to say that farming of vanilla will bounce back as the climate changes in Kerala are also worrying,” MC Saju of the All Kerala Vanilla Growers Association told FE.
Vanilla grows from tropical vines, and it takes about three years for a plant to mature and produce beans. Production in Madagascar has been under stress in the recent years due to climate change and unsustainable practices. In 2016, the crop was damaged due to inadequate rains. Vanilla is highly climate sensitive and needs to be pollinated by hands. A spike in the price of crude oil increases the production cost of synthetic vanilla and the relative demand for the natural vanilla in the global market.
After an initial euphoria over the huge returns from vanilla farming, farmers in the state of Kerala who invested heavily in vanilla had to encounter a market where they could not sell their products. Farmers in the south Indian states took to vanilla farming after 2,000 when prices climbed to record levels mainly due to hurricanes damaging crop in Madagascar, world’s leading producer of the commodity. Vanilla prices soared in 2003-04 to touch Rs 20,000 per kg for cured or processed beans. Later a bumper crop in Madagascar saw Indian prices dropping to less than Rs 600 per kg of processed beans.
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According to the state-run Spices Board data, the area under vanilla cultivation at present is about 1000 ha in India, as against nearly 4000 ha earlier. The present production of processed vanilla is estimated to be around 6-8 tonne annually in India.
Vanilla prices were languishing below Rs 35 per kg for green beans before various farmers organisations took the initiative to procure, process and market the beans. Vanilco, the company promoted by the farmers to process and market the product took a brave step and procured beans from hassled farmers. The company then took the initiative to market processed vanillin extract in the domestic market. Vanilco also entered into arrangements with Milma and Amul to supply flavour for their ice-creams but the enthusiasm was short-lived and volumes did not materialise.