The Vanilla Appeal

Is vanilla farming the next thing after durian?

Asian Property Review examines the trend, which although not new, is gaining more new entrants in Malaysia.

Text by Jan Yong

Kairos Vanilla Farm

While Musang King durians still command a good price especially in China, hence the mushrooming of Musang King plantations in Malaysia, there is a new trend to diversify into other agricultural products that are in demand overseas. One of them is vanilla beans.

All over the world, vanilla has been shown to be the second most popular ice cream flavour after chocolate. But ice cream isn’t the only product that uses it. Vanilla is used in many other products such as confectionary, milk, scent, liqueur, cordial and even in non-food industries such as fragrance and paint.

Currently, the biggest producer of vanilla in the world is Madagascar followed by Indonesia and China. The main import countries are the US, Europe, Japan and Singapore.

Vanilla Planting

With prices of pure vanilla pods ranging between RM1,000 – RM2,000 per kg as of May 2021, it looks like a pretty good product to start planting. But let’s look at what are required to produce a top quality vanilla bean.

One of the biggest challenges of growing vanilla is that the plant is very sensitive – in terms of the timing for pollination and for other stages, for example, it flowers only once a year. Further, the pollination has to be done manually if grown in open traditional farms. Vanilla vines take three to four years to fully mature, depending on the farming method.

The curing process which happens after the vanilla pod is harvested is equally time consuming and complicated. All of these make for a very labour-intensive farming activity.

But with constantly evolving technology, this might change as Ezra Tan Koon Hock, the Managing Director of Kairos Agriculture stresses. The young farmer says the company is undertaking a lot of research and development to expedite the process and has succeeded in bringing down the time for flowering to 18 months and harvesting to 26 months.

Meanwhile, another pioneer, Mohd Feisal Mohd Norawi, a former journalist, has done it his own way – through trial and error, including reading journals and learning from Youtube; and getting tips from an experienced old farmer.

Either way, the fact remains: Vanilla farming is not for everyone, one needs to have infinite patience as this is a long-haul project, much like durians, but with more stringent and complicated farming requirements and is more labour-intensive.

Revolutionising the ‘food of the gods’

Vanilla beans are thought to have originally come from Mexico and some Central American countries during pre-Columbian Maya and Aztec times. From there, the Spanish colonialists took it to Europe where they were cultivated in botanical gardens of France and England. However, they didn’t succeed for 100 years until the French brought it to Reunion Island.

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