Anything but ordinary: inside the Australian press to grow vanilla outside the tropics | Agriculture

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IIn the humid jungle of Mexico, the melipona bee flies under the patchwork lights of the canopy. Encountering a vine, it pauses at a pale green-yellow flower, an orchid-type creature that gapes open its petals for just a few hours a day. Seizing this brief window of opportunity, the melipona’s stinger pierces a thin, almost invisible membrane that separates the male and female parts of the flower, allowing the pollen to reach the stigma.

From this small action, a long, thin green vanilla bean is formed. This is the way vanilla has been grown for centuries.

One of the geodomes of Australian vanilla plantations.

On it New South Wales Central Coast it is gray and wet, and the cold of mid-September has not yet left the air. There is snow rubber and long grass and a couple of truck cabs next to a corrugated iron shed. There are no Mexican bees here. But there is vanilla.

Inside a white geodome, like a giant semi-golf ball resting in a backyard, 200 vanilla columns are about 30 degrees south of the equator. It’s a test case, an entrepreneur’s gambit. Inventor David Soo is setting up 26 of these domes on land at the Western Sydney University campus later this year in a commercial-research partnership and envisions a time when wealthy amateur investors can own a stake in Sydney vanilla, just as they might own a stake in a small winery in the nearby Hunter Valley.

Vanilla beans.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron, but traditionally limited to cultivation in the tropics, pollinated by hand (small plantations already exist in northern Australia). Synthetic vanilla was developed in the 1970s that now stands for 99% of vanilla productsbut the demand for the real deal is high and growing, and prices can fluctuate wildly.

And although the taste of vanilla is all around us in thousands of products, the road to its future supply is not straight. Wild vanilla is threatened with extinction and farmed vanilla is at risk from extreme weather. In 2020, Madagascar, which produces 80% of the world’s vanilla, exported 1,675 tons of the dark spice, worth $512 million. This year, however, the flowering reduced – caused by a lack of rain – so it was thought that cyclones reduce the number of beans produced by 30%.

Soo, in a crisp blue checkered shirt tucked into jeans, suggests the domes may offer a more reliable, less labor-intensive future for vanilla. Around the world, other companies is toying with a similar idea of ​​trying to secure the global supply of vanilla, away from the increasingly volatile equator.

Today, however, Soo is waiting for a flower to open.

There are two that he and Dr. John Troughton, a consultant on the project and an expert in a particular form of photosynthesis, keep an eye on.

Founder David Soo

Now, in early spring, flower buds appear daily. Almost imperceptible, they nestle like small leaves, identically green to the base of the larger leaves from which they grow. Every week Soo or project manager Eelin Ong comes up from Sydney to check the blooms. Reports come back; two flowers out. Eight. Last year, in their first harvest, Ong estimates they had about 3,200 flowers. Soo believes they could have grown more, but accidentally switched the plants from reproduction mode to growth mode by feeding them too much molasses.

He expects more this year. But early in the season, it’s a waiting game.

Ong, in a pilled navy sweater and bright red rubber boots, walks through checking each vine. They are marked with fluorescent pink plastic bands or bright orange tags. She wanders methodically with a clipboard and jots things down in a spreadsheet. Some flowers have already produced beans. Ong also notes these.

Project manager Eelin Ong.

It’s silent in the dome, except for the click of rain against its bubble wrap skin and the husky hum of the air conditioner, keeping the room at the perfect temperature. Soo, a computer engineer by trade, designed the dome for ultimate efficiency. The vanilla grows in cylindrical metal trellises that spring from the spokes of a horizontal wheel and rotate quietly every hour.

While we wait for the petals to open – Troughton has money on one in particular – Soo opens a supermarket cooler. Inside are jars and ziplock bags of processed vanilla. Traditionally, it takes work to get vanilla from the bright plantain green of the fresh beans to leathery deep black-brown strips. Weeks of bringing the beans out into the sunlight to dry during the day and back undercover at night to retain moisture. On the Central Coast, the process is speeding up. A plastic ziplock bag marked “18 August” contains a few strips of vanilla. It has the warm, sweet floral scent of vanilla, but also somewhat darker; malty, caramel-like Ovaltine. In the otherwise scentless dome, the scent envelops us briefly, like a warmth.

Troughton returns from a vine on the other side of the dome. The flower he has seen is almost open—a top petal has stretched out, waving, revealing a glimpse of the world inside, of yellow crepe paper petals ruffled so tightly they look like tiny teeth.

While the taste of vanilla is all around us, the path of its future supply is not clear.

Soo decides that there has been enough waiting. He will open the flower and try to pollinate it.

As the toothpick is driven up along the stigma to under the head, there is little resistance as the stick breaks the small membrane behind. Holding carefully behind the head of the stigma with one thumb, and holding the toothpick in place, the other thumb presses down.

If done right, it will stick. A bean will grow. If done incorrectly, the petals will fall off, leaving the green stem empty and reaching for nothing.

Soo drops the flower. It sticks.

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