Vanilla Farming is Coming to Florida

Florida is an agricultural giant in the US, most known for its citrus, cattle, and sugar cane farming. The subtropical climate is a grower’s paradise, and many homesteads produce fruits and vegetables on a small scale. However, there may be opportunities to expand their operations soon. The University of Florida has identified vanilla beans as a potential future export for the state.
The State of the Vanilla Industry
Vanilla is a controversial crop because of its labor-intensive growing requirements and preference for hot, humid environments often occupying the same areas as rainforests. Although native to Mexico, most of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar. There, poorly paid farm workers painstakingly pollinate the plant by hand and harvest its pods for worldwide export.
The price of natural vanilla is volatile, but the demand remains stable. Growing vanilla in Florida could ease pressure on Madagascan farmers and provide a more sustainable, locally-grown alternative to imported vanilla in the US.
The Challenges of Growing Vanilla
Starting commercial vanilla farming in Florida will not be an easy feat. Growing the plant comes with many challenges that researchers are currently attempting to overcome. For example, it is highly susceptible to diseases. Fungal infections are prevalent and can cause root rot or bean rot that kills the plant or, at minimum, destroys the harvest.
Another primary concern with growing vanilla is pollination. As mentioned, in Madagascar, growers hand-pollinate the flowers to ensure they produce pods. When settlers took vanilla plants from Mexico to Europe, they never yielded any beans because no insects pollinated the flowers. Endangered Melipona bees are some of the only natural pollinators for vanilla.
About the University of Florida’s Vanilla Breeding Program
In 2017, a research group from the University of Florida started the Vanilla Breeding Program to stimulate the state’s agricultural economy. At the time, small farmers faced high volumes of foreign competition, and the University wanted to help them find a new crop to increase their revenue.
The researchers started germplasm—a collection of seeds and plant cells that could help them breed the species in Florida. Today, geneticist Xingbo Wu and his colleagues have secured over $390,000 in grants to establish commercial crop cultivation in the region. The researchers are currently studying over 27 varieties of vanilla to find the ideal species for commercial farming.
One of the most significant aspects of their research is testing the plant’s nutritional requirements to develop fertilization guidelines for local farmers. They’re also exploring opportunities for selective breeding to increase virus and fungi resistance and maximize the plants’ vanilla bean output.
How Vanilla Farming Could Benefit Farmers in Florida
Vanilla is the world’s most popular flavor, and pure vanilla beans fetch a high price thanks to the rising demand for natural ingredients. It’s a versatile crop with edible, cosmetic, and medicinal value. Growing the vines at scale could help Florida’s farmers diversify their offerings and benefit from an untapped domestic vanilla market.
The Vanilla Breeding Program aims to provide local growers with the scientifically-backed agricultural resources they need to grow the crop successfully in the state. Over time, this initiative could establish American farmers as significant players in the global vanilla industry.
Using Vanilla Extract to Impart Tropical Flavor
Even though vanilla only grows in tropical destinations, people worldwide enjoy its flavor thanks to vanilla extract. This natural plant extract preserves the bean’s characteristic taste and scent and is a popular ingredient in cosmetics, beverages, and desserts. Advanced Biotech supplies premium vanilla extracts, concentrates, oleoresins, and pastes for the food and beverage industry. Please contact us for more information.