Introduction to Intensive Ingredients 3: Vanilla

Given our supply issues with Vanilla this year, I thought it might interest you to know why Vanilla (in all its forms) is generally a very expensive spice, and the reasons why this year has been worse. (At least for us.)

If you’ve only run into vanilla as a flavour added to things, or as a powder or extract that you use while cooking – you may be surprised to know that the actual vanilla bean is a fruit. From an orchid.

A series of books my grandparents introduced me to taught me that orchids are beautiful, finicky, difficult-to-keep-alive-without-lots-of-work plants, and I began to understand why vanilla was such a dear spice.

Interestingly, it is far less dear than it used to be. This particular orchid has a special relationship with its primary pollinator, and for long years could not be grown anywhere but its original range, due to that relationship. Eventually it was discovered that the orchids could be hand pollinated, which greatly expanded where they could be grown.

However – consider, for a moment, the likely effort involved in hand pollinating flowers. Especially when you consider that each flower will produce only one fruit.

A pound of vanilla beans will contain 100+ beans. So, in order for a pound of vanilla powder to happen, AT LEAST 100 orchids have to flower, fruit, and be harvested. To make it even more fun, the harvesting also has to be done by hand. Each flower only lasts a day, and the pods must be harvested within a relatively short window.

Basically, the production of vanilla is a highly labour intensive process, as well as requiring the health of a relatively fragile plant. (The number of diseases this particular orchid is prone to is…  impressive. )

My initial research into what it took to produce vanilla occurred because the price we had come to expect for vanilla powder was a bit staggering. (There are reasons why our products with vanilla are generally our most expensive.)

Last year, when I put in our first restock order, the price had doubled. I am currently setting up for our first restock of 2017, and it has risen again, and is now triple our original expectations.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is basic economics. The last time vanilla prices soared (due to hurricanes, primarily) – many people and regions started to grow vanilla, or planted more vanilla, to take advantage of the potential for profit. Eventually this led to a glut on the market, and prices dropped precipitously. So people stopped growing vanilla. They burned out their orchids, and turned their cropland to other, more profitable crops. The cycle has now come around again, and demand is outpacing supply. Especially because at least one of the larger confection companies has decided to switch to real vanilla, rather than the standard vanillin you will still see in many of your vanilla-flavoured treats.

To further complicate the issue, the primary growing region for vanilla has been in a state of chaotic political unrest – to the extent that travel advisories were issued. “Avoid going here, it’s kinda dangerous right now!” As one would expect, when things are that complicated and dangerous, farmers have difficulty being efficient. (Frankly, I’d worry more about my loved ones than my orchids, too.)

The secondary growing region for vanilla experienced vicious droughts for a couple years in a row, the worst year wiping out all but 10% of the crop. And my suppliers report that a vanilla blight weighed in as well – making 2016 a BAD year for vanilla prices. (They’ve been quite apologetic about the sudden leap in price, but they do not have a choice. Harder for them to find and pricier for them to acquire – so that passes on to us here at Desert Sage Natural.)

Unfortunately this means that I am going to have to take all of our vanilla teas and our vanilla coffee offline for a bit, and make sure that our prices are still such that we are actually managing a profit from them. I don’t want vanilla to be what kills DSN.

We apologize for this necessity, and for the price increases that will be incoming. The news and reports I’ve gathered indicate that vanilla prices will eventually drop and stabilize again – and when they do, we will readjust our prices.


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