By Oliver Samson
Sheena Tolentino Fideli tends to a total of 1,540 vanillas in San Pablo, a first-class city in Laguna about 80 kilometers south of Manila.
Fideli, 37, foresees demand for both vanilla cuttings for propagation and cured vanilla beans for culinary spice to rise in the coming years, so she and her family are eyeing to plant 9,000 pieces more in their Vanilla Acres Gem farm.
Vanilla can make money prior to bearing beans
A kilo of cured vanilla beans, which contain the aromatic vanillin, could sell at P15,000, Fideli said. But the vines start producing beans, or pods, at the age of three to five years. Her vines are only about two years of age, not yet bearing flowers since they had been planted only in 2021.
The beans contain the aromatic spice of vanillin — the main chemical compound extracted from the pods.
In the first week of January this year, Fideli prepared 1,100 pieces of rooted vanilla cuttings for buyers in Candelaria, Quezon and Lipa, Batangas, who were also interested in vanilla farming.
She sells vanilla cuttings that had taken roots in coconut husks at P500-P800 apiece.
The farmer also sells cuttings that have not rooted yet and measure one foot in length at P350 apiece, and the same cutting one-meter in length at P700-800 apiece.
Fideli ships vanilla cuttings that had taken roots in coconut husks that are three nodes tall, or more or less 15 inches in length.
“I usually lower the price when the buyer negotiates,” Fideli said. “I observe rooted cuttings have more market because they have more chances of surviving than the ones that do not have roots yet.”
Fideli had already sold not less than 4,000 vanilla cuttings since she started marketing propagation materials.
She ships vanilla propagation materials to as far as Sultan Kudarat. She also dispatches cuttings to Palawan, Benguet, Isabela, Palawan, and other parts of the country.
“A buyer in Quezon City who got cuttings from us in March 2022 is propagating them now at a condo,” she said.
Vanilla beans: source of aromatic flavor
Fideli sets aside some 300 vanilla plants out of the more than 1,500 vines for producing beans. The means she does not cut anything from the 300 vines to produce propagation materials that she markets to vanilla enthusiasts.
“The vines start producing beans at the age of three to five years old,” she said. “The beans turn yellowish when they are ready for harvest.”
The vanilla beans could be marketed after months of curing, Fideli explained. They dry them in the sun from 10 in the morning to one in the afternoon daily. The curing period could take eight months. The cured beans — dried and fermented — turn dark in color.
The vanilla vines bear flowers in June, Fideli explained. The beans are harvested from January to March.
“A single vine can produce one to one and a half kilos of beans,” she said. “The vine can bear fruits for up to 15 years or more.”
Vanilla extract is widely used in flavoring food, like chocolates, coca colas, biscuits, ice cream, cakes, and many more.
Aside from food, vanilla extract is also harnessed by the pharmaceutical industry. It is used in manufacturing syrup medication to make it palatable to the taste buds. It is also incorporated into perfumes.
The vanilla as a culinary spice had once been exclusively used as a flavoring to cocoa drunk by the kings and nobility in Spain. Mexico, where vanilla originated, was a colony of Spain.
The Aztecs were believed to be the first people to use vanilla in flavoring cocoa. The Aztecs dominated Mexico before its conquest by Spain in the 16th century
The vanilla originated from Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of Central America, and the melipona bee, the only bee known capable of pollinating vanilla flowers, is found in Mexico alone.
The leading countries in vanilla production today–Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea–hand-pollinate them. In that sense, the survival of this species outside its origin largely depends on human intervention.
According to a report on Trend Economy published Nov. 14, 2022, Madagascar accounted for 68 percent of vanilla world’s exports in 2021. The US had 36 percent of the world’s imports followed by France with 21 percent.
Vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic; they are made with male and female parts. But a tissue in the flower hampers its ability to self-pollinate. Also, vanilla pollen is extremely difficult to penetrate.
“We hand-pollinate them by gently joining the two pistils together,” Fideli said.
The vanilla flower can also be hand-pollinated using a toothpick by gently lifting the rostellum away from the stigmata, so that the pollinia flap will push toward the stigmata and make contact with it.
In Mexico, where vanilla originated, it had been believed that hummingbirds and bats had possibly also pollinated it.
Cultivating the vanilla
Vanilla prefers a hot and humid climate, Fideli explained.
At their Vanilla Acres Gem farm, she sets them apart by one and half meters to two, using madre de cacao trees as the vines’ support. The vines thrive in loam soil.
“The area should be well-ventilated and have shades,” she said.
The vanilla plants are watered two times a week, Fideli explained. Each vine is watered with half a pail of water. The base of the vanilla, including the supporting tree, should be mulched with coconut husks.
Mesh nets can protect the young vine from the rain. Heavy rain can be damaging to young vanillas.
“The vanillas need special care up to three months of age,” she said. “Beyond that age, they are already strong.”
At three months old, the vines are already about 15 nodes tall.
Coconut trees could also serve as support to the vines, Fideli observed. But horizontal wooden or bamboo railing should be attached to the coconut trees at a height that would be easily accessible for hand-pollinating the flowers. Otherwise, the vines could climb on the coconut trees as high as they could without those horizontal railing. The horizontal railing would lead them to creep sidewards.
Any tree could serve as good support to the vanilla, except for mahogany and other trees that produce resins, she added. Resin is bad for vanilla plants.
Fideli and her family had grown eggplants, corn, beans, and papaya in their five-hectare farm before they ventured into cultivating vanilla in 2021.
Today, they still grow those crops alongside the vanillas. She is being helped by her husband and children on the farm. They practice organic farming of vanilla, culturing the planifolia species–the most potent of all the vanilla species.
Fideli is also a consultant to other vanilla farm owners in the country.
Photos courtesy of Sheena Tolentino Fideli