New crop could put Florida on spice map

Adriana Brasileiro
Miami Herald
Walton Sun

MIAMI — Vanilla has an undeserved reputation for being blah, as in plain vanilla, the flavor for people who consider chocolate too daring.

The truth is a vanilla bean is an exotic thing — the only edible fruit of the orchid family — and an essential ingredient in a host of everyday favorites as well as holiday treats, from Christmas cookies to Hanukkah sufganiyot (fried donuts) to coquito, Miami's version of the superior upgrade of egg nog that originated in Puerto Rico.

Most natural vanilla comes from Madagascar and a few other foreign locations, and demand far outstrips supply.

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But University of Florida scientists believe South Florida has promise as a place to grow the plants that produce one of the world's most popular flavors.

"Vanilla likes it humid, vanilla likes it hot, so South Florida is a great location for this crop," said Alan Chambers, an assistant professor of horticultural sciences at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Tropical Research and Education Center.

For the past three years Chambers has been growing more than 100 vanilla varieties and testing for yield, resistance to disease and flavor. He is now offering South Florida growers information on how to start a crop that could potentially rival the quality of vanilla from Madagascar, where more than 70 percent of global supply is produced.

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Over the next few years, the hope is that South Florida could become a niche market, supplying restaurants, bakers and other local businesses with locally-grown vanilla.

Already, 90 growers have contacted Chambers to learn the secrets to a flavor that is anything but basic, starting with how it's produced. Vanilla flowers only bloom one day a year for just a few hours, and they must be pollinated by hand to produce the beans.

Once harvested, the beans — which look like string beans when green — must be dipped in hot water and dried. They are wrapped in wool blankets and stored in airtight containers, which are stored in a warm place for about two weeks. Then the beans must be dried in the sun for as long as two months. The process is all manual and a lot can go wrong: rain can interrupt the curing process and too much humidity can create mold.

The small production of natural vanilla concentrated in just one country is a key reason why prices are sometimes higher than the cost of silver. Still, flavoring companies are willing to pay as much as $600 per kilogram because it's just so important.

Vanilla prices can vary widely due to the plant's unpredictable pollination results, a lack of infrastructure to guarantee constant production and extreme weather events like cyclones that every now and then wipe out crops in Madagascar.

South Florida has hurricanes, of course, and higher labor costs in America would make large-scale vanilla production even more expensive than silver. But Chambers believes that better production facilities could mean that locally raised crops might yield more beans than the plants in Madagascar.

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Also, vanilla doesn't require a lot of space and is perfectly happy growing on other tropical fruit trees as avocado, for example. It also does well when vanilla vines are planted under the shade of taller fruit trees.

"We have a lot of avocado, mango and passion fruit growers who are starting to work with vanilla now," Chambers said.

No one is producing commercially yet, but small batches will probably be ready to sell in two to three years.

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Jeff Robbins, managing director of Sneakz, a Jupiter-based maker of organic milkshakes, drove to Homestead recently to meet with Chambers and get the scoop on growing vanilla. His shakes and meal replacement products are made with real ingredients, but vanilla is sometimes prohibitively expensive.

"We are committed to making products with pure and organic ingredients, so it would be great to secure a reliable supplier or even produce the vanilla ourselves," Robbins said.

Demand for natural vanilla is growing as more food and flavoring companies pledge to stop using artificial flavors in response to consumer pressure. In 2015, a series of giant food companies including Nestlé, Kellogg's, Hershey's and General Mills promised to eliminate the use of artificial vanillin — the easily-available synthetic version of vanilla — from foods sold in the United States.

Vanilla extract, produced by soaking cured vanilla beans in alcohol, is widely used in baking and food flavoring, but it has other applications. It's used as a natural anti-microbial remedy, and it's currently being tested as a treatment against the blood disease sickle-cell anemia. In the cosmetics industry, perfumers add vanilla to make fragrances sweet and romantic.

The exotic spice first arrived in South Florida in the early 1900s, as Miami was a stop on the trade route linking Mexico and Europe. The vanilla orchid is native to Mexico, and scientists believe that all 200 or so species currently found in the wild derive from a few original Central American varieties.

For centuries, these orchids were cultivated only in Mexico, home of a local species of bee that pollinated the flowers in a small area in a forest near where Mexico City is now located. Legend has it that Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes in 1519 saw the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II drinking a cocoa beverage flavored with vanilla, which he called the drink of the gods.

Cortes took vanilla plants to Europe, but for 300 years nobody was able to cultivate beans because there were no bees to pollinate the flowers. Then, in the mid-1800s, a young slave in the Reunion Islands invented a technique for pollinating vanilla orchids by hand, making commercial production possible.

Small crops began popping up all over tropical counties, but the orchids did especially well in Madagascar. The island nation's northeastern tip became the world's top vanilla-producing region in the late 20th century.

Having South Florida as an alternative supplier, even at small quantities, could help buyers have a more stable source of an ingredient that no baker or ice cream maker can do without, Chambers said.

"We hope to go from the "one vanilla fits all" model to offering specialty, different options for discerning growers and foodies."