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Vanilla Production

Every time we make a vanilla recipe, we stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us.

The first baker made bread. The second baker made flour. The third baker made an oven. The fourth baker added sugar and honey to sweeten it up and create flavor. And so on, until finally, people started making bread with salt instead of honey because they could get pure salt rather than beeswax or honeycomb from their neighbors.

In this series of posts I want to make vanilla extract, the classic recipe that is sold in just about every store. But before we start thinking about how to grow vanilla, let’s take a step back. Let’s stop thinking about the end-product and think about the raw materials instead.

Vanilla beans come from a vine. Which comes from a vineyard. Which comes from a more complex system of farming than most people realize.

I was originally going to write this post using photos taken near my house but when I remembered that vanilla is grown in tropical areas, I figured it needed video too, not just photos and text. So below is a neat little video that was made by the students of the Sirindhorn International Institute of Technology in Thailand.

I love this video because it shows everything from planting vanilla to extracting the beans themselves. (I also like it because I’ve been to Thailand and can identify some of the places in the video.) And at six minutes long, it’s quite a lot better than having a photo slideshow. With that said, let’s see how vanilla is grown and processed:

Here we see a bunch of vanilla vines growing under cultivation.

The biggest producer of vanilla is Madagascar (2900 tons), followed by Indonesia (2300 tons), China (885 tons), Mexico and Papua New Guinea.

There are only 15 countries in the world producing vanilla. With so few producing countries and the high demand of vanilla, it is subject to volatile price development. A shortage in 2017 caused rising prices of vanilla, with prices dropping by a third again in 2019.

Sambava, Madagascar — The world’s largest vanilla industry is feared to be on the verge of collapse as farmers struggle to earn a living.

Madagascar, renowned for its high quality vanilla, is the world’s leading exporter of the spice, accounting for half of global production.

But abysmal wages, sharp competition from markets in Asia and the growing popularity of synthetically produced alternatives means Madagascan farmers are abandoning their crops.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), most vanilla production is concentrated in the north-east of the island, where about 70 percent of the population depends on the spice to earn a living.

Jean Bruno is one such farmer and earns little over $1.50 a day.

He told CNN: “Yes, it is difficult to grow, to tend it day after day. But the worst part is the price, it’s miserable.”

Economist Michel Manceau, who is currently collecting information on Madagascar’s vanilla crops, agrees. He believes with prices so low, many farmers will stop growing the crop altogether.

“The game is to press the price down as strongly as possible to those people, who today are making a dollar a day family income, if they are only in vanilla,” he said.

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“A dollar a day. That’s the limit that has been reached in the last two or three years and most of them are quitting vanilla,” he continued.

Vanilla is a volatile commodity, and the past decade has seen prices fluctuate widely. According to the IFAD, in 2003 a single kilo of vanilla could cost you up to $500. Today the price hovers around the $25 to $30 mark, barely enough for farmers to survive.

Ironically, it was vanilla’s inflated prices in 2003, when farmers profited the most from the sweet-smelling spice, which have spelt disaster for Madagascar’s vanilla industry.

The price surge was the result of a devastating cyclone in 2000, which destroyed vast acres of crops. With the bean in short supply, prices soared and major importers turned to synthetically produced alternatives, the IFAD said.

Winning back these importers has been difficult, with many companies looking to avoided future pitfalls in such a volatile market.

Recovery has been made even harder by competition from countries such as Indonesia, India and Uganda, who entered the market after the 2003 price hike.

It’s a dismal situation for a country renowned for making some of the world’s best vanilla. Although the Madagascan crop is one of the most labor-intensive in the world, it is highly prized due to its high vanillin content, which gives the vanilla its flavor.

The vanilla bean was introduced to Madagascar during the 19th century. With no local bees to pollinate the crop each flower must be pollinated by hand in order to produce the prized vanilla beans.

It’s a timely process, which is compounded by the fact that each flower only lasts one day, meaning growers have to inspect and pollinate their plantations every day.

The European Development Research Network estimates farmers needs to spend 260 days per hectare during the first year and about 460 days during the next four to eight years in order to maintain a vanilla crop.

It’s a huge amount of time, especially considering a rice harvest requires an average of 120 man hours per year. As a result, many vanilla farmers say they no longer reap the rewards of their hard labor.

Claude Andreas, the president of the Madagascar Vanilla Growers’ Association summed up the situation simply, telling CNN: “At less than $25 a kilo, the price is too low. If it goes below that the farmers will just stop growing it. They can’t make ends meet.”

Where is the vanilla capital of the world?

This is a tricky question.

The vanilla bean is cultivated in tropical areas and the center of the world’s production of vanilla beans is Madagascar.

Madagascar accounts for about 40% of global production and with that in mind it’s natural to wonder where exactly the country’s capital, Antananarivo, comes into all of this?

But whether you’re looking at Madagascar as a country or looking at it from an economic standpoint, things are much simpler – Antananarivo is the world’s largest vanilla capital.

Madagascar is not the only producer of vanilla, but it’s the one that takes most of the world’s beans. Antananarivo is Madagascar’s largest city and is also a major financial center and a transportation hub.

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It is great place to watch the market and in fact, if you follow the press, you’ll see that it is often Antananarivo which responds to price fluctuations in vanilla.

If the spot price of vanilla goes up (or down), then you know where to look first. This is not because Madagascar produces such a huge amount or because it has such a large export market – but rather due to its proximity for monitoring European and American markets.

The situation is the same for Indonesia, which has an estimated 99% of its crop cultivated in West Kalimantan. The distance from Jakarta to the island is about 600 kilometers and makes it easy for Indonesian farmers to monitor fluctuations in export prices.

In 2011, Madagascar’s economy was worth $4.8 billion, with income per capita of $1,220. In comparison, Indonesia’s economy is worth over $5 trillion and its per capita income is $1,350.

What island nation produces nearly 80% of the world’s vanilla?

It’s Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is known today.

The island nation is the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans and accounts for about 80% of total global production.

It is also the only producer of high-quality vanilla beans and according to The World Bank, it grossed over $1.6 billion from exports in 2010.

While Madagascar accounts for 40% of global production, Ceylon has an estimated 80%, which has helped shape its economy. The island has worked hard to promote its product throughout Europe and America, making it a very attractive export commodity.

In fact, its widespread use of vanilla has helped make the island a major tourist destination. In 2010, there were 2.4 million visitors to the island, making it one of the most important tourist destinations in Asia.

However, it was not always like this for Ceylon. The island’s economy was hit hard by a civil war which lasted from 1983 until 2009 and resulted in some 40,000 deaths and the displacement of several hundred thousand people. Vanilla is a very labor-intensive crop and difficult to produce during periods of conflict. However, once peace restored to the area Ceylon returned to producing vanilla at record levels.

What country has the best vanilla extract?

This one is easy to answer.

Artisan vanilla extract is produced in Madagascar and the country’s farmers are big proponents of the idea that there is no comparison with anything else out there.

While vanilla extract is a common ingredient in many of our favorite foods, the vanilla used for these extracts comes from a variety of sources, making it difficult to compare one to another. Madagascar’s growers say their product is simply a better match for food items such as ice cream, chocolate and cakes compared to others.

The region has also been able to establish itself as the go-to source for high-quality vanilla extract, which has helped turn the bean into a premium product in its own right.

Although Madagascar produces 80% of the world’s vanilla beans, it’s incredibly popular as an export product. According to the Vanilla Bean Board of America, the country is responsible for almost one-third of global production, making it the largest producer in the world.

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What is vanilla tincture?

Vanilla tincture is a tan-colored liquid extract made from dried whole vanilla beans. It can be used to enhance existing herbal tinctures or to take advantage of its own distinct flavor.

Vanilla tinctures are best when used in baking because they are thicker than extracts, allowing you to use less and still achieve a desired extract level. For example, a 10:1 ratio of extract to alcohol used in baking can be approximately doubled using oils.

Vanilla tincture is also a more potent version of vanilla extract and can therefore be used in stronger tinctures such as those used in smoking blends. It is made by soaking whole vanilla beans in an alcohol-based solution before straining out the solids. The alcohol content can range from 60% to 90%. Strength will depend on your preferred dosage, but a good starting point would be to use twice as much when making for cooking/baking and four times as much for smoking blends.

Is Madagascar the best vanilla?

While Madagascar produces the vast majority of vanilla in the world and is widely considered to be excellent quality, it is not the top-quality variety.

That title belongs to Ceylon, which has been producing vanilla for over two centuries and has worked hard to promote its product and establish outstanding standards.

The country’s history with vanilla goes back to as early as 1820 when the Dutch took control of the island. The spice became a key characteristic of the island and was soon cultivated in significant volumes.

According to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the country’s farms produce about 45% of the world’s vanilla and account for about 80% of the total global crop. It is also the only producer of high quality beans, meaning it has been able to command premium prices for its product.

Ceylon’s ability to produce a high-quality vanilla bean has also helped make it a popular tourist destination. In 2010, there were 2.4 million visitors to Ceylon, making it one of the most important tourist destinations in Asia and undoubtedly helping drive up demand.

Who exports vanilla?

Vanilla has become the signature export of Madagascar and it is responsible for almost 40% of the world’s vanilla bean production. The rest of the world is forced to look to other countries for their vanilla needs.

Ceylon, which has been cultivating vanilla since 1820 and accounts for 20% of global production, is a major player in the export market. Other countries that also produce substantial volumes include Indonesia, Mexico and Tahiti.

In Asia, China has been producing vanilla for just over 30 years and now accounts for about 10% of total production. Indonesia produces another 8%, while India produces 5%. However, these figures do not include what the country imports from other producers.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world coming in behind saffron. The word “vanilla” comes from “vainlya,” a word which originated with the Totonac people of Mexico who used it to flavor chocolate. The price of vanilla has risen dramatically in recent years and may spike even further due to climate change. Madagascar produces almost all of the world’s vanilla but it cannot claim to be the best quality. Ceylon produces high quality beans and is considered to be the best source for vanilla production, making it by far the most expensive.