Vanilla: From Madagascar to Your Kitchen

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Why you should care

Because time is money, and growing vanilla takes years.

Within a bottle of all-natural vanilla are years of precise attention and cultivation. Farmers, probably living in Madagascar, spend years raising, pollinating, protecting, picking and curing their beans before selling them to traders who will send the vanilla around the world.

Farming vanilla is a long and meticulous process. Almost five years can pass from the time the seeds are planted to when a pod is sold. Some, like vanilla farmer Jao Emile, say growing vanilla is like caring for an infant.

The knowledge about farming vanilla is often passed down from generation to generation. Bary Aldor, for example, said his father taught his family everything they know about vanilla.

“We still remember everything we learned from him,” Aldor said.

Growing vanilla is like caring for an infant.

While some crops take only five or six months to harvest, vanilla plants, which are a kind of orchid, take four years to sprout. After that, farmers hand-pollinate each flower. This is the step that Emile says determines the quality of the vanilla. From there, the plants need another nine months to mature.

Vanilla farmers can sell their vanilla pods at two points in the production process, as either green vanilla right after pods mature, or as cured vanilla, which can take an additional month. The return on cured vanilla, however, is much higher than that of the green vanilla.

Once vanilla moves from a farmer to a vanilla trader, it starts its journey around the world and into Western markets. Years after it’s planted, it is transformed into a flavor that defines some of our favorite sweets. Who knew an element of your ice cream sundae was half a decade old?

Video by Fellipe Abreu, Henrique G. Hedler, Vitor Pessoa, Thay Prado and Fraser Stephen. Accompanying text by Olivia Miltner.

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