Vanilla is the sec­ond most valu­able spice crop per kilo­gram in the world (af­ter saf­fron), but it is a very long-term crop, and de­mands ex­cel­lent grow­ing skills.

NZ Grower - - NEWS - Mike Ni­chols

I first saw it grow­ing in 1999 in Tonga on the is­land of Vava’u, in an area owned by the King. It was not well main­tained, and pro­cess­ing – an es­sen­tial part of the pro­duc­tion sys­tem – was fairly hap­haz­ard. A key part of pro­duc­tion in­volves hand pol­li­na­tion of the in­di­vid­ual flow­ers on a daily ba­sis, and then, when the crop is ma­tur­ing, the se­lec­tive har­vest­ing of the fruit (called beans, be­cause they look like bean pods), also on a daily ba­sis. From flow­er­ing to har­vest nor­mally takes six to nine months. It is not a crop for the faint-hearted.

Vanilla orig­i­nated in Cen­tral Amer­ica, where pol­li­na­tion is car­ried out by a spe­cific lo­cal bee, but as these bees are not present in many other coun­tries, hand pol­li­na­tion is nec­es­sary.

There ap­pears to be a real short­age of crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion of the phys­i­ol­ogy of the vanilla orchid, so most pro­duc­ers sim­ply let the cli­mate and the weather dic­tate pro­duc­tion pat­terns.

It would be in­ter­est­ing to know what de­ter­mines the flow­er­ing pat­tern of the plant. Most trop­i­cal plants flower when rain fol­lows a pe­riod of drought. Could flow­er­ing be con­trolled with such a strat­egy?

Each flower shoot has sev­eral flow­ers on it, rather like a tomato, and it is nor­mal to only al­low three or four flow­ers to set on each shoot, oth­er­wise the in­di­vid­ual bean size is smaller. Cur­ing is also quite com­pli­cated to pro­duce a high qual­ity (and there­fore high priced) prod­uct. It in­volves ini­tially the “killing” of the ma­ture beans by im­mers­ing them in hot wa­ter, and then the de­vel­op­ment of the vanilla flavour by stor­ing the beans for sev­eral months at high hu­mid­ity and high tem­per­a­ture. Then the pods are dried and graded for sale.

A New Zealand com­pany, Heilala Vanilla, based in Tau­ranga, has a vanilla pro­duc­tion op­er­a­tion on the Ton­gan Is­land of Vava’u. They orig­i­nally started to grow it in Tau­ranga in green­houses, but found the heat­ing costs too high in New Zealand. I won­der how the eco­nom­ics would look these days us­ing a plant fac­tory and LEDs (lightemit­ting diodes). Cer­tainly high light lev­els are not a re­quire­ment for vanilla, and in fact plant fac­to­ries use en­ergy to dis­si­pate heat from the lamps rather than for heat­ing. How­ever, the abil­ity to pre­cisely con­trol the en­vi­ron­ment might be a huge plus. How pro­duc­tive might the vanilla orchid be if ex­posed to long days (up to 24 hours), and op­ti­mum tem­per­a­tures, rather than what the cli­mate pro­vides? It was in­ter­est­ing to note that the Cook Is­land gov­ern­ment is pro­mot­ing vanilla pro­duc­tion as a po­ten­tial ex­port crop. Cer­tainly it has the ad­van­tage of be­ing an ex­cel­lent crop for a coun­try where freight costs to mar­ket are an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion, be­ing high value and low vol­ume. The French re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion CIRAD (the Agri­cul­tural Re­search Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment) on the is­land of Re­union in the South­ern In­dian Ocean is the cen­tre for world au­thor­i­ties on vanilla orchid pro­duc­tion.

▴ Vanilla flower at the right stage for pol­li­na­tion.

▴ Vanilla beans.

▴ Young vanilla flower stalk.

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