Call it what you want — many people say “basic” — but you may be surprised to learn that at one point, all-natural vanilla was a more precious commodity than silver. In 2018, the price of vanilla per kilogram peaked at $600, $60 higher than the price of a kilogram of silver. Though prices have since dropped below $500 per kilogram, there are some very good reasons why the spice remains pricey.
Bad Weather in Madagascar
So why is vanilla so expensive? It’s native to Mexico and has growers in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, but the bulk of vanilla production occurs in Madagascar, which is responsible for over 80% of the world’s vanilla. (For reference, vanilla makes up about 20% of Madagascar’s exports, so it’s a pretty big deal there, too.) But relying so heavily on Madagascar to produce vanilla comes with a cost: in recent years, the country has suffered from several major cyclones. This makes the already vulnerable crop even more susceptible to destruction. And given how long it takes for vanilla to mature, it could be years before farmers are able to replace what they lose in a storm.
High Maintenance Growing
Another source of pain in the vanilla market is that the spice is notoriously difficult to grow. Farmers must wait a period of 2-4 years for the crop to mature, and vanilla flowers bloom only one day in the year. Because of this narrow window of opportunity, farmers cannot rely on natural pollination, so the blooms must be hand-pollinated. To do this, the farmer uses a tool — usually a toothpick-like object — to move aside the thin membrane between the flower’s male and female parts, which are then brought into contact with one another. This must be done with every flower on the vine; if done right, the pollination creates the tiny black seeds one might see in a vanilla-infused cake or ice cream. So farmers must check their plants every day; it would be a tough loss if they miss the blooming, considering that about 600 hand-pollinated flowers produce just 1 kilogram of cured vanilla pods.
Painstaking hand-pollination, however, is only half the fight. Nine months later, the beans are finally ripe and ready to harvest. The vanilla pods then must go through another months-long process of curing, whereby they go from edamame-green to the recognizable, aromatic black strips we’re used to. This process brings out the bean’s fragrance and potency as the world’s second most expensive spice, after saffron. Needless to say, each step of the process is labor-intensive, and doing any of it incorrectly could spell disaster, say if the beans are not dried completely and become moldy during the curing stage.
Because vanilla is so valuable, unfortunately it’s also a popular target for thieves. Farmers try to fight against this by harvesting the beans before they’re ripe, but this dilutes the overall quality of the beans they sell. This isn’t such an attractive option, so instead vanilla growers might brand the pods with the name of their farm. This lets buyers know where the produce comes from. But even with these measures, stolen vanilla beans eventually do make their way into the supply chain and drive prices up.
The demand for all-natural vanilla has also seen its share of mood swings in the past few decades. In the 1980s, companies began using more vanillin — a cost-efficient, synthetic vanilla flavoring — as a substitute for real vanilla. In response, vanilla farmers cut their production of the spice. However, in the past decade, there has been a movement in the food industry toward using all-natural ingredients, causing the demand for vanilla to rise again.
But farmers have struggled to keep up with demand, and frankly, the prospect of doing so is not appealing to some. Who’s to say that demand won’t plummet again in the near future? Or the next storm might wipe out a carefully cultivated plantation before farmers even have a chance to harvest. And the risk posed by vanilla thieves is often too high for some farmers, some of whom have seen their wages remain stagnant despite skyrocketing demand in the market.
Given all these reasons, it’s no wonder why vanilla is so expensive. Between its exclusive production location and its particular requirements for growing, vanilla has every reason to be pricey. So next time, think twice before reaching for the word “vanilla” to mean “boring”... because it is anything but.