LA ARGENDORA, Guanacaste – The best vanilla growers, says Amelia Paniagua, are the ones who love their vanilla.
“You have to coddle your vanilla plants,” she tells a small group of microfarmers in this tropical agrarian community tucked behind the verdant knob of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano.
Paniagua heads a multi-institutional effort in the northwestern province of Guanacaste to spur sustainable economic growth in one of the more financially forsaken corners of the country by cultivating the lucrative orchid.
After saffron, vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world. Paniagua estimates that the average world market price of vanilla beans is between $150 and $320 per kilogram.
Fausto López planted 200 vanilla seedlings two years ago. Today, they climb up his orange trees. The natural posts support the vanilla vines’ vigor. The symbiotic relationship makes it easier for farmers like López to transition to vanilla cultivation without razing their pre-existing, fruit-bearing trees.
Cultivating vanilla as a dual crop is also aimed at conserving forests. It provides a sustainable alternative for farmers who have traditionally cleared first-growth trees – now often endangered – to create open, cattle-grazing parcels. And it is simultaneously a vehicle for reforestation. Replanted mahogany, cedar and laurel trees act as natural trellises for vanilla vines.
López, however, must wait another year before he beholds his first orchid flower,and the vanilla won’t be ready for commercialization until a year after flowering.
The initial process, from seed to sale, takes four years, after which the plant will yield an annual harvest.
The project plans to provide each farmer with 1,000 vanilla plants. Once flowering, each plant will produce one kilogram of green vanilla, which sells for about $50 per kilogram. Eventually, says Paniagua, vanilla growers could reap 20,000 kilograms of green vanilla per hectare.
Yet for years aid organizations have targeted micro-farmers for grassroots, profitgenerating agricultural evolutions. Often, exploitable crops replace sustainable farming, but the success of the new planting is undermined by fickle market prices.
“Not even half of the global demand for vanilla is being met,” says Carlos Avila, who is also in charge of the project. “And the market is constantly growing. More and more products are using vanilla, while there is a general trend away from synthetic imitations.” Vanilla is an ingredient in food, liquor, tobacco, cosmetic, perfume and pharmaceutical products.
Vanilla’s scarcity and market value are partly a consequence of the plant’s finicky nature and the resulting time and labor investment. Avila estimates the project will need to invest more than $26,000 over four years per producer.
While vanilla is one of the most challenging crops to cultivate, neophyte growers will benefit from the know-how of more than a dozen trained specialists from a handful of government and university organizations.
And once the plants begin producing fruit, maintenance costs will drop to $2,500 a year.
The Agriculture and Livestock Ministry and the NationalUniversity are the project’s primary benefactors. About 8,000 vanilla seedlings are slated for planting in La Argendora next year.
If successful, the vanilla vitalization could change the economic fate of a 42-family community entrenched in Costa Rica’s breathtaking hinterland.
“Eventually, we hope to develop tourism here,” says Paniagua as she stands in López’s sunlit orange tree grove that one day will be woven with orchid-laden vanilla vines.