Did you know that harvesting vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive foods on Earth?
Today’s post is by Gayl Southard, Administrative Consultant at SafeSourcing.
Gerry Newman, owner of Albemarle Baking Co., in Charlottesville, VA, buys vanilla for his business. Just a few years ago one-gallon of organic, fair-trade vanilla was $64. In June of 2017, that same gallon is $245. It is a global phenomenon for pastry chefs and ice cream makers. Some businesses have changed their recipes to use less vanilla or have switched suppliers to find a cheaper product. “It’s not certified organic. It’s not fair trade, he says. There’s guilt I have over that, because we’re talking about something that’s all hand labor, and if these people aren’t being treated fairly, it’s really sad.”
Harvesting vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive foods on Earth. Vanilla beans are from the seeds of an orchid. It grows wild in Mexico where birds and insects pollinate the flowers; however, most vanilla now is grown in Madagascar where the pollination is done by hand. After the seed pod has been harvested, the pod is soaked in hot water, it is then wrapped in woolen blankets for roughly 48 hours, and then placed in a wooden box to sweat. The pods are then laid out in the sun to dry, but only for one hour each day. This process takes months.
There was a period of low prices for vanilla that many farmers abandoned their farms. A lot of companies had switched to a synthetic version of vanilla. Synthetic vanilla is much cheaper than natural vanilla. The package declaration may read “vanillin” or “artificial flavors”.
A savvy shopper prefers natural ingredients. Three years ago, Nestle and Hershey’s announced they were shifting to natural ingredients. They wanted vanilla from orchid seeds. That is when the supply did not meet the demand. The cost of vanilla beans in Madagascar costs more than 10 times what it did five years ago. Good news for farmers, but not so god for bakers.
Farmers in Madagascar are now rebuilding vanilla plantations as quickly as they can, but it takes 4-5 years before those orchids start producing seeds. Last March a cyclone hit Madagascar, destroying a third of the crop. Also, theft has become a major problem for farmers.
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