Vanilla Cultivation – Profits, Yield , Cost & Income Per Acre
Vanilla is High maintenance, High Return Crop which can be cultivated in parts of India. Cultivating vanilla is Labour intensive. The returns from the crop start from the third year of planting. Some plants may take up to 5 years to flower. The Vanilla flowers are pollinated by hand. In Nature, Vanilla is a plant native to Mexico. The plants are pollinated by a specific kind of bee only found in Mexico. Today, the crop cultivated elsewhere in the world requires manual pollination due to the lack of these orchid bees. Though many studies indicate pollination by hummingbirds and other bees, there has not been any substantial evidence.
In the year 2004 When Madagascar was at its peak of Vanilla Cultivation and the sole leader in Vanilla production, crops in Madagascar were destroyed and prices shot up to $400 a kilo. The prices dropped to $20 the next year with a lot of imitation products and a lack of demand. The price shot up again in 2017 with cyclones in Madagascar.
In 2018, Madagascar and Indonesia were the top 2 producers of vanilla. While most companies were moving from artificial flavors to natural ones, many food manufacturers who were using Lignin, an alternative to Vanilla, started moving towards original vanilla. This drove the prices to the peak again.
Today Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
Is vanilla cultivation profitable in India?
To begin with, Vanilla can be cultivated only in a few areas in India. Parts of Kerala and Karnataka are proven to be suitable for Vanilla. While the prices of Vanilla bean in the market seems enticing, there is a lot of work involved. Nevertheless, The price of 40,000 – 50,000 Rs per Kilo of dry vanilla bean is very good. Even with as little as 100 plants, the possibility of earning up to 3-4 Lakh rupees (if the current price is consistent) is possible. Many farmers in India are earning a lot more than 3-4 lakh rupees every year from one acre of vanilla cultivation.
If you notice carefully, Any crop which is hard to grow has a price value that is much higher than a crop that is considerably easier to grow. The price for vanilla is so high not just because it’s the most widely consumed product. It’s also one of the hardest to grow. vAnilla depends on weather conditions, requires hand pollination, and takes a lot of time and care to grow. A pod once pollinated takes 9 months to mature and each plant grows only 4 bunches of quality beans a year.
Hand pollinating a vanilla flower:
Vanilla flowers are large and fragrant. But native bees in India are not pollinators of the flower. The need to hand pollinate the flowers is labor-intensive and has to be done in the early hours of the day. The fact that the flowers only have a blooming life of a day makes the processing time-sensitive too. The vanilla vines are vigorous growers and can reach a height of 200 feet. Since hand pollination can only be practiced commercially at a reasonable height of 6-8 feet, the vines are limited to growing to a 6-8 feet height too. Vines that are longer are usually pruned. If the vines are allowed to grow tall, the flowers on the lower portion of the plants are pollinated while leaving the top part untouched. The top part can be used to propagate more plants when needed. Its also to be noted that the bean which is pollinated from the lower part of the vine is much healthier and of better quality.
Processing and Curing of Vanilla:
Vanilla cultivation ends not just with harvesting but goes further. The harvested beans are removed from the stem (which holds the bunch) and are separated as individual pods. The pods are then submerged in hot water (70 degrees Celsius) for 3 minutes after which they are packed in a plastic bag to sweat. The sweating process takes 12-24 hours and is then sun-dried. The entire process may take a week to 10 days to get the right humidity level and quality.
If the farmer intends to get a better price, the dried beans are then graded by size too and packed in vacuum-sealed bags.
The growing of vanilla plants by itself requires certain conditions like tropical weather. This limits the area where vanilla cultivation is possible. Added to this is the cost and time of growing, pollinating, and then processing the bean. All this eats upon the profit of the farmer. Even then, the possibility of making a significant profit from Vanilla farming is possible.
How much profit can you make from an acre vanilla farm depends on the number of plants and how much manpower you have to pollinate the plant and other resources. Because you have sufficient resources and manpower, you can expect a yield of 500 KG which is approximately 20,00,000 Rs per Acre in a year from the 4th year as gross income and approximately 10,00,000 or more in profit. This is if one acre has approximately 1000 plants and the per kilo of vanilla cost is 4000 Rs for Green beans. The prices today are 40,000 Per kg for dry beans once cured and processed. The profit indeed is much much higher for vanilla crops than estimated.
Propagation of vanilla plants from stem cuttings
Vanilla plants are propagated from cuttings. The length of the cutting should be between 60-120 centimeters. Shorter cuttings will take more time to grow and will result in a longer period to flower and fruit. Cuttings are usually rooted first in a potting medium before planting in the field. Rooting the medium is known to have a higher success rate with a reduced mortality rate in plants. It’s always recommended to propagate smaller cuttings in a nursery before planting them directly into the field.
Vanilla cuttings from the mature stem are known to yield fruits and flowers faster. Flowering starts when the vine is at least .25 to .5 inches in diameter. So when mature vines are planted, the chances of them flowering are much faster.
Vanilla is prone to fungal diseases and its recommended that the cuttings be treated with copper Oxychloride and Bordeaux mix. Once treated, the cuttings are left to partially dry or remove some moisture for 3 days. This is done in a cool shaded area, free from moisture. The storage increases the rooting ability of the cuttings. The storage period could vary anywhere from 3 to 10 days. A recommended period of 3 days is usually practiced.
Once the plants are set in the shade for 3 days, they are then moved to the potting media and tended in shade for 2-3 months or when they are ready to be planted outdoors.
Unlike the common notion that there is one superior quality, in vanilla, each of the 3 varieties has a quality that is distinct and preferred by a set of customers or industry. The most common variety of vanilla produced all over the world today is the bourbon variety, scientifically called the Vanilla planifolia. This is the variety that is cultivated in Madagascar. The main reason why this plant is popular is that it is hand pollinated (which does not require solitary bees). The pods of the bourbon vanilla are also much thicker and fleshier. The yield of vanillin is also higher in these plants.
The other varieties which include the Tahitian and Mexican are also different in their notes, texture, and taste. Tahitian Vanilla is widely used in perfumes. The Mexican variety is used very similarly to the Madagascar variety but is often pollinated by bees, which results in mediocre yield and quality. Nevertheless, each of the varieties has its unique qualities. To know more about the varieties and their uses, visit https://greatist.com/eat/what-is-the-difference-between-types-of-vanilla#madagascar
Vanilla Crop Cultivation And Basic Information on Growing requirements.
Like all crops vanilla too requires certain conditions to be met when it comes to cultivating them. There are soil conditions, weather conditions, and fertilizer requirements for any plant and it varies from plant to plant. Vanilla, plant is from the orchid family and requires tropical weather conditions. There are pests and diseases which affect the plant and require care for. Also when it comes to the commercial cultivation of vanilla, there is an intense need for skilled manpower. For most other crops, the need for skilled manpower is much lesser than that of vanilla needs. Let’s look at each of the requirements one after the other to make a successful vanilla plantation.
- Climate for Cultivation: Vanilla prefers hot humid weather. The tropical conditions are best for vanilla cultivation. Medium to high rainfall, Warm, humid summers, and an elevation of 1500 meters above sea level is perfect conditions. The plant does not tolerate frost or high heat. In India, Kerala and parts of Karnataka are well suited for vanilla cultivation. Parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra are feasible for vanilla cultivation but due to a lack of awareness about the crime, it’s not cultivated widely. The northern part of India is usually susceptible to colder weather which is not suitable for growing vanilla.
- Ideal Soil for Cultivation: Soil should be soft and porous. Well-drained soil is the best for vanilla cultivation. Water-logged conditions or clay soil should be completely avoided. Though vanilla is from the orchid family, they grow in soil, unlike most orchids which grow on trees or dead bark. Soil should be rich in organic matter and should be supplemented with leaf compost or vermicompost from time to time for better growth. Occasional application of chemical fertilizers could benefit plant growth too but soil conditions should always be maintained.
- Varieties of Vanilla: There are over 150 Varieties of vanilla and they are named after their places of origin. But the most highly cultivated varieties are the Tahitian vanilla and Madagascar vanilla (also referred to as the bourbon vanilla). There are other varieties like Indian vanilla, Ugandan vanilla, Tonga vanilla, and Mexican vanilla. Each of these varieties has a distinct taste and flavor and some are preferred more than others by customers.
- Propagation: Manilla is not propagated from seeds but stems cuttings or vine cuttings. Vine cuttings over the length of 3 feet are preferred. The lower part of approximately 1 foot is trimmed of all leaves and covered with organic matter and soil with the remaining 2 feet protruding and provided with the support of a tree. The plant is directly planted or can also be propagated in a nursery. Nursery plants are more successful than directly planting in most cases. For beginners, it’s always recommended to propagate plants in a nursery rather than directly to the field.
- Season: Vanilla plants flower from the 3rd year if the plant is from a mature stem cutting. Plants peak in production from the 8th year and produce pods from the 9th year onwards. The flowering is prominent from December to February. When pollinated correctly the plants will produce matured pods in 6-9 months. The harvesting begins in June and goes up to December in some cases.
- Land Preparation: When it comes to vanilla cultivation, it’s not the land preparation you need to worry about but the support for the vanilla plants themselves. Vanilla plants require a support structure in place before planting them. Small to medium-sized trees are the best support for Vanilla plants. Though vanilla can be cultivated in large trees, it’s impossible to pollinate them or pick the pods when they are ready if the pods are too high. A steady structure in the form of trees at a height of 6-8 feet is recommended. Any tree beyond that height will make vanilla pollination harder. The flowers need to be reached for pollination and it’s not practical to use ladders on each tree to pollinate them one after the other. Casuarina and jatropha trees are very common for vanilla plantations. Densely plant these trees at a 1-1.5 meter distance and allow them to grow to a height of 4 feet or till the stems are mature before planting the vanilla plants. Land preparation, in general, requires nothing more than the addition of organic matter, leaf compost, and cow manure after that. Occasional pruning of the trees may be required to prevent them from growing over 8 feet.
- Planting: Plant 3-4 vines of vanilla per support structure. When planting directly, opt for vines that are at least 3 feet long and are mature. Mature vines tend to flower and produce pods in as little as 3-4 years. Vines that are propagated in the nursery should be at least 2 feet long before being planted. Ensure at least 1 foot is in the ground and covered well with the organic matter with one foot on the support structure.
- Spacing and Density: The spacing and density of the plant depend on the amount of support structure available. With a 1-meter by one-meter distance, approximately 2500 support structures can be planted, but even with half that amount, 1250 support structures, and 3 plants per structure, you can estimate around 3750-4000 plants per acre. Though this may seem enticing, consider how many plants you can pollinate before you go ahead and plant 4000 odd plants. Remember that vanilla is hand pollinated. A person can pollinate around 10 flowers a minute or roughly 300-400 flowers an hour if they are good at their job. A beginner will be able to pollinate not more than 200 plants per hour. With each plant having 10 flowers and only 2-3 hours each person will be able to pollinate 60 plants in a day. You have 4000 plants. Imagine the manpower required only for pollinating these plants.
- Intercropping: Intercropping is rarely possible with vanilla unless you start cultivating vanilla in large plants and plantation crops. It’s not uncommon for many farmers to cultivate vanilla on areca palm or coconut palm but the problems of pollinating and harvesting have their own set of limitations. In general, vanilla plants are usually cultivated on plants and trees which have no value. They are regularly pruned to the height of 8 feet preventing them to branch out or grow big.
- Irrigation: Vanilla has a root system that spread out on the top level. Water and irrigation are crucial for the growth of vanilla plants. Regular irrigation is mandatory for better growth and quality yield of the vanilla crop.
- Fertilizers: Vanillacrop relies mostly on organic fertilizers. Vermi Compost, leaf compost, and cow manure are usually the primary source of fertilizers for vanilla crops. Bone meal and bio-slurry can also be used to supplement the plants for better growth.
- Pests: The most common pests in vanilla are beetles and weevils and vanilla bugs. Pesticides should be applied only when required and when pests are detected. Diseases are usually fungal and fungicides can prevent them.
- Training and Pruning: Pruning of large vines is usually necessary especially when they grow beyond control The vanilla plants start flowering after they reach the top of the support structure and have nowhere else to climb. The vine starts growing downwards and often start flowering at this stage. When the vines are too long and unmanageable, they are pruned. the pruned vines are often used to propagate more vanilla plants.
- Harvesting: Harvesting is done once the pods are mature and the tips start yellowing. They are picked and stored for processing.
- Post Harvest: Curing is the most important part of Vanilla cultivation. Curing is not all about drying the bean in sun. The process is far more technical and to get the right results there are a series of steps that need to be mastered. This is essentially the process that brings out the aroma and flavor in the vanilla bean. You should read the detailed article on curing vanilla by experts at https://cooksvanilla.com/the-art-of-curing-vanilla-beans/
- Yield: an average bunch of vanilla has about 4-6 beans. A plant will yield a minimum of 2 bunches a year. With over 4000 plants in an acre, you would be able to cultivate around 20,000 beans a year. An average of 90 beans make one kilo. So a farmer could cultivate around 222 Kilos of Fresh vanilla beans a year from one-acre land. About 6 KG of Fresh beans gives you one kg of cured beans. With that in mind, you would be able to cultivate around 36 KG of cured vanilla per acre. Very less it would seem and you are right.
- Profit Per acre: An average of 720,000 rs can be earned (Gross income) from one acre of vanilla cultivation if the price is around 20,000 Rs per KG. With the production cost, primarily in Labour, you could be looking at a LOSS of 2-3 Lakh rupees if you do this in one acre. You can profit from vanilla cultivation only if you can increase the yield, Price and simultaneously reduce the cost of labor. Labour alone amounts to 75% of the total expenses. If you can reduce the labor, you can increase the profit substantially. But with increased prices for the product itself, chances are you will make a decent profit. The best way to ensure profit is to start small with 100 -300 plants. This way it’s manageable by one or 2 people and usually can be done by the farm owner himself. This reduces labor costs and also risk.