Agri Business

For southern farmers, vanilla’s flavour of season

V Sajeev Kumar Kochi | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 09, 2017

Joseph Sebastian, a vanilla farmer in Kerala’s Idukki district



High prices of vanilla seem to have opened up opportunities for farmers in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, as the prices for good quality processed beans touched a whopping $600/kg.

Low yield in Madagascar, which produces 80 per cent of the world’s vanilla, due to a cyclone, and declining cultivation in India and Indonesia are stated to be the reasons for the upward trend in prices.

Crop neglect

However, the majority of the farmers here could not take advantage of the situation as they neglected the crop following an earlier price fall. Thus, production dwindled to below five tonnes compared to around 1,000 tonnes in 2008-09.

Joseph Sebastian, a vanilla farmer in Thangamony in Kerala’s Idukki district, attributes price volatility, labour shortage and the threat of Fusarium wilt — a common fungal disease — as the reasons to abstain from vanilla cultivation, for fear of a crop loss. Vanilla has a 3-year gestation period.

“In Idukki, hardly 100 farmers are now cultivating vanilla and the picture is no different in other south Indian states,” Sebastian told BusinessLine.

He cultivates vanilla as an intermittent crop on his 5-acre plantation and was able to get an average of 300 kg/acre as yield.

Labour-intensive

Vanilla It is a labour intensive crop and there is a requirement of manual or hand pollination for each flower.

Vanilla is predominantly an export crop and its domestic usage is very minimal. The industry mainly uses synthetic vanilla and not the natural kind. That too is for applications in the food industry, cosmetics etc.

Tepid interest

According to A Jayathilak, Chairman, Spices Board, production was very meagre due to a lack of interest from farmers in maintaining vanilla gardens, especially in the wake of disease and the price fall since late 2000s.

The lower prices also hindered the area of expansion. Currently, production is limited to isolated pockets in Karnataka and Kerala. However, R Mahendran, a Pollachi-based cardiologist who took up vanilla cultivation on a commercial basis, underlined the need for maintaining the quality of the crop, as international flavour houses preferred only superior beans.

Contract farming

Mahendran, who is also the chairman of Expo Van and Indian Vanilla Initiative Pvt Ltd, said that his company encourages contract farming of vanilla in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala with a target to achieve one million vines.

“We have achieved 30 per cent through a tie-up of 1,000 farmers and the aim is to complete the project by 2019,” he said, adding that necessary technology on correct cultivation practice would be provided along with a buy-back guarantee of the produce.

Maintaining that prices at these higher levels will not sustain over the long term, he reminded farmers to focus on quality to fetch better prices.

“Even at a ₹5,000 a kg, vanilla cultivation will be profitable subject to good cultivation practices,” Mahendran adds.

Published on June 09, 2017
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