KUANTAN (Bernama) — There is a reason why vanilla is the world’s second most expensive spice after saffron. Vanilla beans are possibly the most labour-intensive plant to grow.
Yet that did not deter Mohd Feisal Norawi from planting vanilla seeds at the empty lot of land near his home in Kampung Bangau Parit, Temerloh.
Ripe vanilla stalk which is sought by the international culinary industry
He was aware of the high demand of natural vanilla in the food industry, but the prohibitive cost of pure vanilla has led many to resort to its synthetic alternative.
The 33-year-old decided in 2008 to undertake the ambitious project and invested some RM20,000 in it.
He prepared the soil for planting at his 0.2 hectare plot of land and obtained Vanilla planifolia seedpods from Indonesia, as the country seemed to share similar growing conditions with Malaysia.
“Gardening is my hobby, but I wanted to plant a crop that did not require as much land as rubber or oil palm trees, so I chose vanilla,” he said when contacted by Bernama.
Despite the amount of investment made, the father of three had little idea of the needs of the plant, other than what he had read on the internet.
Because of this, not one of his nearly 400 vanilla bean plants produced pods after six years.
He was dismayed, as he had read that the plant would start fruiting after three years.
Thinking that his efforts had been an exercise in futility, Mohd Feisal abandoned his vanilla farm for close to two years.
It was not until he met another vanilla bean plant grower that he realised his plants were not beyond saving.
Ishak Musa, 88, whom he met in Raub, Pahang taught him the proper way of growing the tropical plant that is also a member of the orchid family.
“Aki Ishak (what he called Ishak) taught me the right way to pollinate the vanilla orchids in order to produce pods. It turned out that what I needed to do was hand pollinate them,” he said.
But hand pollination was not that simple a process either. Pollination is the most intricate and tedious part of vanilla bean growing, as the flowers only bloom for one day out of the entire year, and sometimes even shorter.
Growers would have to undergo the labour-intensive task of inspecting their plantations every day for open flowers, so that they would not miss any chance for pollination.
The orchids would start blooming from 7.00am, but the best time to carry out hand pollination is between 9.00am and 11.00am.
The pollination must be completed by noon or the process could fail, he said.
“Pollinated flowers would turn dark within three days, indicating that fertilisation was successful and would result in a vanilla pod.
“However, we are able to pluck the pods only after eight months, when its colour has changed from green to a yellowish shade,” said Mohd Feisal, adding that the lifespan of the plant is around 25 years.
He said pods would then be sun-dried for a month before it is ready to be sold. The dried pods can last four to five years.
The pods are then manually graded. Those that measure 18cm and above are classed as grade A while those measuring 17cm and below are grade B.
This year’s harvest is projected to be in November as the pollination process was just completed in April.
“We can actually set the plant’s flowering times as it would only flower if the plant is stressed. For example, in my farm, the vanilla bean plants are planted under “shader” plants to keep it in a shaded environment.
“When the time is right, I would prune the shader plants so that the vanilla plants receive direct sunlight. This sudden stress would stimulate flowering,” he explained.
When the writer visited his farm, she had wondered if she would be able to smell the aroma of vanilla on entrance.
Mohd Feisal said that was the common misperception of first-time visitors.
“Many are disappointed when told that the vanilla orchids do not emit any smell. The delicious aroma of vanilla only comes from the vanilla pod. Even that can only be expectedy from over-ripened vanilla pods or those that have burst due to not being harvested early enough,” he said.
This year, Mohd Feisal is expecting a harvest of up to 11kg of vanilla pods from his 600 plants.
His wife, Musazlila Mustapar, 33, markets and sells the vanilla through their Facebook page “Vanilla Temerloh”.
“Three vanilla pods are sold for RM25 and delivered to customers via mail,” said Mohd Feisal, who already had ready customers waiting every harvesting season.