University of Florida researchers at the Tropical Research and Education Center have embarked on a comprehensive evaluation of vanilla – from developing fertilizer recommendations to developing the highest-yielding and disease-resistant varieties to identifying beans with the best vanilla content.
“Why grow vanilla? It’s the world’s most popular flavor,” emphasized Edward “Gilly” Evans, University of Florida food and resource economist and director of the center. “Vanilla extract can command anywhere from $250 to $600 per kilo. By value of acreage, it has the potential to outcompete all other crops we grow in this area.”
Vanilla, a vining orchid, is mainly grown in Madagascar. The U.S. is the world’s No. 1 importer of vanilla beans, which are then processed stateside and used for food, flavor, cosmetics, perfumes and medicinal purposes.
University of Florida’s vanilla breeding program began in 2017 when researchers recognized economic, infrastructure and environmental changes that were putting pressure on small farmers due to rising costs of ag inputs, foreign competition, increased environmental and labor regulations, and an erosion of market power.
Spearheaded by former University of Florida plant breeder Alan Chambers, the center began a modest vanilla plant germplasm collection which today has ballooned into over 400 accessions and 27 species, including five species native to Florida.
Xingbo Wu, a University of Florida plant breeder and geneticist, and his colleagues have carried on Chambers’ work through a $383,000 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) grant and a $16,499 SSARE Graduate Student Grant to explore establishing domestic vanilla cultivation in southern Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We are looking at several different objectives: identifying varieties with high yields, disease resistance and high vanilla content; identifying nutrient content in plants to develop best fertilizer recommendations; and identifying potential plant pollinators,” said Wu.
Researchers are also exploring virus-induced gene silencing to increase a vanilla plant’s tolerance to disease, which can be prolific. Vanilla is susceptible to many fungal diseases and various root, stem and leaf rots, in addition to viruses.
“The biggest challenge inhibiting domestic vanilla production has been the lack of appropriate planting material and scientifically validated growing information,” said Wu. “The emerging domestic vanilla market requires a supply chain to move product efficiently from farm to end users. This project was designed to overcome these challenges and could have major impacts on productivity, profitability and rural communities.”
So far, approximately 11 small farmers in the Homestead area are growing vanilla.
Source: USDA NIFA