In 2018, the Rishi team had the opportunity to visit our vanilla farming partners in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, located 415 kilometers slightly northwest from Mexico City. The team visited both during the pollination and the harvest and processing seasons. During these visits, our team learned the nuances of hand-pollination and the extremely involved drying process of this incredible spice.
In our daily lives, we use the word vanilla as a flavor description, eat treats made with the comforting botanical, and even refer to non-food items that are familiar as “vanilla.” A world without vanilla would be hard to imagine in our current culture, yet the balance of keeping this vine readily planted, harvested, and exported seems like a miracle when delving into the subject.
Vanilla is the second most expensive crop to Saffron (Oana 2018). Using this comparison for scale, one can imagine the difficulties that must be overcome to produce this miraculous botanical. This journey is a labor of love and takes over a year to complete from pollination, to harvesting, to curing, and to export.
With the highly fluctuating market in mind, many scientists are working to develop flavorings that mimic the flavor of botanicals in the wild. A large flavoring to note is vanillin, which is popularly derived from wood pulp distillations. At Rishi, we take care to use flavor that is derived from vanilla beans and whole vanilla pods and not a pharmaceutical distillation.
The world of vanilla is layered with hardships due to vicissitudes in weather and the need for hand pollination due to the few natural pollinators left in nature. In Mexico, where our crop is grown, less than 10% of the crop is pollinated by the Melipona bee, and the remaining is pollinated by our farming partners.
To illustrate the genetic constraints of the vanilla plant: it is self-fertile, meaning it has both male and female parts but is unable to self-pollinate. Each vanilla orchid must be pollinated within 12 hours of opening or the flowers wither and fall off, which results in vanilla pods not being produced by the plant. These vines are grown ideally in a temperature range from 15-30 degrees Celsius and around 1500 meters above sea level. The manual pollination is a highly-detailed process, which includes opening the orchid to reveal the female and male parts and moving plant matter that separates the two.
Not only is this process painstakingly intricate, pollination can only occur while the flowers are open, which begins early in the day and ends by afternoon. After this time, the flower is no longer accessible to complete the pollination, therefore losing its ability to produce vanilla pods. In Mexico, a pest named “guzanos peludos,” a wooly caterpillar, eats the vanilla vines before they are fully formed, which ensures the plant will not produce pods.
Over the past 20 years, the price of vanilla has fluctuated greatly, with peaks and lows dispersed throughout. In 2003, the world saw a massive surging of prices up to $500 per kilo due to a cyclone in 2000, which destroyed many of the Madagascar crops (Ifad, 2008). In 2010, due to the market prices swelling in the previous years, the price of vanilla massively declined to below $25 per kilo, leaving producers struggling to make ends meet. (Wedeman, 2010).
Again, in 2017, the vanilla crops in Madagascar were affected by horrific weather, including cyclone Enawo, that decimated much of the vanilla available, driving up the pricing of other vanilla available on the market in other regions such as Mexico. During the summer of 2018, the price of vanilla reached $600 per kilo, higher than the price of silver at that time. 5 years earlier, the price of vanilla was $25 per kilo, marking an almost 3000% growth on the market (Kancungira, 2018).
The world of vanilla is also fraught with buyers and bandits who desperately attempt to purchase or steal vanilla before it is time to be harvested. In Madagascar, farmers even go so far as to stamp emblems into the green pods, which can still be seen after processing, marking their property to discourage thievery. (Kancungira, 2018).
Once farmers have made it through the tasks of hand-pollination, protecting from the elements and those that would take their crops, the beans are harvested, picked up by a cooperative, and placed in a processing facility.
At our partners’ processing facility, which is an immaculate room of racks and tubs, the beans are placed in a nylon sack and blanched for 30 seconds to keep the pods from oxidizing. Once blanched, the steaming, hot vanilla is placed in oversized, coffin-shaped chests in layers and left overnight. The next day, the vanilla is pulled out of the chests and layered on sterile, indoor tables. The vanilla is closely monitored and turned. By tradition, vanilla beans must be sundried for 30 days.
Depending on the weather, upholding this tradition could take a minimum of a month and up to multiple months. If the weather is not sunny, the vanilla beans are monitored and turned on the tables indoors. Every sunny day, the vanilla is brought inside by 2pm. The artisans know exactly when the vanilla is dry enough by touch and will only release the vanilla for export once this process has been expertly completed.
Rishi fully backs our farmers through pricing, regardless of the high or low ends of the market fluctuation. This type of variation is why we prefer our Direct Trade model—we can always be in support of our partners. Direct Trade allows us to be a part of our farms in real time. Rishi is also passionate about using botanicals that are close to nature. All of our blends feature true vanilla bean, not vanilla flavorings.
The artisans in Mexico that meticulously hand craft vanilla for our captivating botanical and tea blends truly overcome many obstacles that would keep production from happening. We are grateful for the producers we are able to work with to achieve the high-quality botanical for our products.