September 26, 2019
Vanilla, the second most expensive spice after saffron, has been widely grown in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore, besides Kerala and Karnataka states for the past two decades. The world’s largest producers of vanilla (family Orchidaceae) are Indonesia, Mexico, Madagascar, Reunion and Comoro. Vanilla was introduced to India from Mexico as early as 1835 but faded out due to poor knowledge of its cultivation.
It was re-introduced to India in the 1990s after a slump in Madagascar and sufficient horticultural research at Wayanad in Kerala assured that South India was suitable for vanilla production.
Vanilla adapts to a wide range of soils rich in humus and good drainage. It needs a warm humid climate with well-distributed rainfall and a three-month dry period. It is planted as stem cuttings either as mono-crop or intercrop with native coconut or areca nut palms for climbing support. The trees should have 1.2m to 1.5m spacing within rows and about 2.5m to 3.0m between rows. One hectare can accommodate around 1,600 to 2,000 standards for vine climbing. However, if dead standards are used, adequate shade trees should be planted for good flowering. A single vanilla flower produces only one pod.
Dr. R Mahendran, a doctor-turned-agriculturist from Pollachi, has the credit of uniting scattered vanilla farmers under a self-sustaining business module called Indian Vanilla Initiative (IVI) that has gained national and global recognition. A staff member at the IVI office at Gopalapuram in Pollachi, who don’t want to be named told The Covai Post, “Our company is around 13 years old with nearly 1,300 farmers cultivating vanilla on nearly 3.5 lakh hectares in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. We have field officers to monitor planting, pollination, pruning, harvesting and then curing and grading the pods for marketing it in India and abroad.”
Though The Covai Post was unable to speak to Dr. Mahendran, he is heard saying in one of his videos, “I researched for a decade in the 1990s to increase vanilla productivity and introduce it into multi-cropping system with native trees. This was successful and within a decade, by 2007 India was producing around 400 tonnes of vanilla, I don’t think any country can boast of such a record.”
Why is vanilla so expensive? The IVI website says it is because they have to be hand pollinated, hand harvested and hand cured. The grading also has to be done manually. Vanilla is mostly used in the confectionary industry in India and abroad. Vanilla’s medicinal uses cover intestinal gas and fever, as also an aphrodisiac.
The IVI has a cluster module for cultivation, buy back and monitoring. Besides this, the seed centre in TNAU Coimbatore also sells vanilla seeds for cultivation.