The Future of “the Green Gold” Vanilla

The area when I was a child around the Temanggung regency, Central Java in the early 70’s was the main producer of “green gold” vanilla fruit which had good quality and market share abroad. Green gold is a term for plantation commodities that have the potential to be exported. Together with tobacco and coffee plants, the Temanggung area which altitude ranges from 500-1000 meters above sea level is suitable for plantations as well as fruit trees.

The refreshing smell of quality vanilla fruit at that time was the first awesome smell I felt from the nature and at that moment I also saw the vanillin crystals glittering inside the body of the ripe fruit bean. This memory is always attached and I remember it as a blessing to the locals. Vanillin extract from ripe vanilla fruit is used to give the aroma of food and drink, perfume, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and health needs (anti depression).

According to data from the 2016 Food and Agriculture Organization Statistical Database (FAOSTAT) world food organization, two thirds of the total 8,000 tons of vanilla are produced by Madagascar (37%), Indonesia (29%), the rest come from China, Mexico, Tahiti, and Papua New Guinea. Total world production is decreasing in 2017 to 2018 because global warming which disrupts the dry season becomes too dry and the rainy season is excessive and unpredictable.

Actually vanilla production in Indonesia has started to decline since the early 2000’s because its quality abroad has been rejected by the international market and domestically due to too much theft so that the maintenance of its plants has become dormant and has not developed, as is the case in Madagascar. This year 2019 is expected to give better hope for vanilla production in Indonesia.

Currently vanilla plantations are generally still traditional. Global warming which causes weather to be more unpredictable can be overcome by maintaining plants in climate-controlled greenhouses (temperature, humidity, light, air circulation) and soil fertility (organic liquid fertilizer, natural growth hormone, soil microbes). It takes around 8 months starting from pollinating flowers with the help of farmers’ hands to become quality fruit. In the greenhouse the fertilization process becomes more controlled and can avoid theft.

Vanilla plants (Vanilla planifolia) are members of the orchid family (Orchidaceae), which their flowers are usually fragrant, colorful and beautifully shaped, complete and complex. Many opinions suggest that members of the Orchidaceae family, including vanilla plants, are relatively slow to grow and pollination is always with the help of humans so that from a business standpoint it takes time for ROI (return of investment). This needs to be overcome by the experience of planting and processing fruit production, the development of science and technology, as well as adequate management and R & D.

In fact, in terms of technology in plantation crops, planting vanilla is relatively easy because natural selection has tested this plant on a limited environment. This is one of the characteristics of the orchid family. Orchidaceae members are one of the most diverse in the plant world. Vanilla plants have long been cultivated since the Aztec era around the 15th century and were first introduced by the Spanish people along with chocolate plants to Europe.

With advances in greenhouse technology, organic fertilizers that use natural microbes by earthworms, and the help of natural pollination that can be done, for example by bees and hummingbirds, need to be studied to support vanilla production. In addition, vanilla plants have evolved for a long time, so they have been tested, especially for vanilla plant varieties from the Temanggung area that were once known abroad as well as important to develop.

Revolution is needed in planting and Vanilla post-harvest processes. After everything is calculated, well planned, vanilla planting will be shorter, more productive, and safer so that it can bring in foreign exchange, also create jobs. The glory of vanilla fruit, the Indonesian green gold for export quality is expected to be repeated in the near future and can compete healthily.

The photo of Vanilla planifolia above is courtesy of Malcolm Manners, Florida.

-Bintoro Gunadi

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