Asian Property Review examines the trend, which although not new, is gaining more new entrants in Malaysia.
Text by Jan Yong
While Musang King durians still command a good price especially in China, hence the mushrooming of Musang King plantations in Malaysia, there is a new trend to diversify into other agricultural products that are in demand overseas. One of them is vanilla beans.
All over the world, vanilla has been shown to be the second most popular ice cream flavour after chocolate. But ice cream isn’t the only product that uses it. Vanilla is used in many other products such as confectionary, milk, scent, liqueur, cordial and even in non-food industries such as fragrance and paint.
Currently, the biggest producer of vanilla in the world is Madagascar followed by Indonesia and China. The main import countries are the US, Europe, Japan and Singapore.
With prices of pure vanilla pods ranging between RM1,000 – RM2,000 per kg as of May 2021, it looks like a pretty good product to start planting. But let’s look at what are required to produce a top quality vanilla bean.
One of the biggest challenges of growing vanilla is that the plant is very sensitive – in terms of the timing for pollination and for other stages, for example, it flowers only once a year. Further, the pollination has to be done manually if grown in open traditional farms. Vanilla vines take three to four years to fully mature, depending on the farming method.
The curing process which happens after the vanilla pod is harvested is equally time consuming and complicated. All of these make for a very labour-intensive farming activity.
But with constantly evolving technology, this might change as Ezra Tan Koon Hock, the Managing Director of Kairos Agriculture stresses. The young farmer says the company is undertaking a lot of research and development to expedite the process and has succeeded in bringing down the time for flowering to 18 months and harvesting to 26 months.
Meanwhile, another pioneer, Mohd Feisal Mohd Norawi, a former journalist, has done it his own way – through trial and error, including reading journals and learning from Youtube; and getting tips from an experienced old farmer.
Either way, the fact remains: Vanilla farming is not for everyone, one needs to have infinite patience as this is a long-haul project, much like durians, but with more stringent and complicated farming requirements and is more labour-intensive.
Revolutionising the ‘food of the gods’
Vanilla beans are thought to have originally come from Mexico and some Central American countries during pre-Columbian Maya and Aztec times. From there, the Spanish colonialists took it to Europe where they were cultivated in botanical gardens of France and England. However, they didn’t succeed for 100 years until the French brought it to Reunion Island.
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There, it succeeded due to the discovery of hand pollination by a young slave. From there, the cultivation spread to the rest of the world including Madagascar which eventually became the biggest producer of top quality vanilla in the world, followed by Indonesia.
Natural pollination wasn’t very successful earlier due to the shape of the plant which made it difficult for bees and hummingbirds to pollinate except for the smallest and strongest of them. Hence, hand pollination is required.
Vanilla vines take anywhere from three to five years from potting, cuttings, lowering to having a lot of cured beans. As vanilla orchid cannot tolerate frost, ideally in a tropical climate, a greenhouse is needed to cultivate these plants.
Vanilla pod is basically a seed capsule and is referred to as vanilla bean. The vanilla flavour comes from the seed pods of the Vanilla planifolia orchid.
The bean reaches its full size after 10–15 weeks of successful pollination. Mature beans are harvested when they are 8–9 months old. Freshly harvested pods are processed and cured to inhibit the natural vegetative processes. This prevents microbial growth and promotes the enzyme responsible for the formation of flavour constituents.
The curing process is laborious involving sweating and drying of pods. At least for six weeks, the beans must be wrapped in a blanket at night to facilitate moisture condensation on the pods.
The curing process varies across the world and has a major influence on the quality and aroma of the vanilla extract. Vanilla extract is a mixture of 200 compounds, with vanillin being the most abundant compound and the one giving vanilla its distinctive flavour.
It has been estimated that production of 1kg of natural vanillin requires pollination of nearly 40,000 vanilla orchid flowers. According to Mohd Feisal Mohd Norawi, founder of AmaniVanilla Temerloh (AVT) Sdn Bhd, it requires more than 30 kilograms of cured beans to get 1 liter of pure vanilla extract. Therefore, the cost of natural vanillin is very high and fluctuates because of the unpredictability in the environmental conditions.
Today, only 1% of the vanillin is extracted from natural source and the rest is derived from chemical and microbial synthesis routes. Though cost effective (about US$15/Kg), synthetic vanillin is traded as artificial flavour and thus does not satisfy increasingly sophisticated consumer tastes.
Vanillin is the major flavour constituent of vanilla. Vanilla residues contain precursors which could be converted into vanillin by suitable enzymes. Fermentation of vanilla residues yields products which can enhance the flavour of vanilla extract and bring it closer to that of the freshly extracted flavouring.
Vanillin can also be produced through various bio-technological processes, which continue to be developed.
In addition, the discovery of VpVAN (vanillin synthase) gene that is essential to carry out the signature step of converting ferulic acid into vanillin has enabled researchers to synthesize vanillin in other plants as well such as Capsicum. Vanillin producing bioengineered Capsicum (Capsicum frutescence) cells with VpVAN gene has highlighted the significance of this gene.
However, with the advent of next generation sequencing tools, the genomic data is becoming easily accessible and genetic modification is also becoming possible in many plants including orchids.
Through CRISPR/Cas9 system, it is possible to mutate multiple genes in plant genome as well as introduce multiple genes through homologous recombinations. This has already been used on tomatoes, where CRISPR-based editing has enabled researchers to enhance flavour, aroma as well as the sugar content. Such CRISPR-mediated editing can also be used on Vanilla planifolia vines. End result: This can revolutionize the vanilla industry. – Compiled from various sources.
Self-taught farmer making a mark
Mohd Feisal Mohd Norawi, founder of Amani Vanilla Temerloh (AVT) Sdn Bhd talks to Asian Property Review. Why did you decide to go into vanilla farming?
I decided to get involved due to several factors, namely, the world demand for vanilla pods is very high, including from the halal market. I started in 2008 when it was not commercialized yet in Malaysia and the land requirement for a smallholding is not large.
Besides buying ice cream, visitors can also buy the vanilla pods and plants at AVT farm in Temerloh. Was it difficult to transition from being a journalist to a farmer?
It makes no difference whichever field we are in as long as there is passion and strong self-motivation. I wanted to be the first brand leader for vanilla growers in Malaysia. How did you obtain the vanilla plant (cutting/seed)?
I obtained the seeds from a local company at the time. The company is no longer involved in the vanilla industry now. What were the biggest challenges you faced in vanilla farming?
The main challenge is that there is no knowledge about this plant (when I first started out) and even government departments or agencies do not have the expertise in vanilla farming. So I tried and kept trying every year. I learnt on my own through reading journals and through watching Youtube, as well as from an old man from Raub, Pahang, one Ishak Musa, 94. Are the ones in your farm organic?
I practise farming without fertilizers and chemicals but have yet to apply for organic certification. I already have a MyGap (Malaysia Good Agriculture Practices) certificate. Was the curing stage difficult? Where is the processing done after the harvesting?
Yes, this drying process is the most difficult and requires specialized manpower. Only our most experienced employees are involved during this stage. On a small scale, I do it at home. But on a large scale after this, we will reserve a special space at Amani Vanilla Temerloh (AVT) farm in Temerloh, Pahang. Why is pure vanilla extract so expensive? What is the current market value for pure vanilla extract?
It’s expensive because it requires more than 30 kilograms of cured beans to get 1 liter of extract. The equipment used is also expensive. The current price is around RM1,000 per kilogramme (down slightly) for dried vanilla. Has your farm been profitable so far? How many staff work for you?
Yes, profitable so far. We have 13 workers. Do you sell in bulk?
We are working towards selling in bulk. In two years’ time, we will produce more for sale in larger quantities. By then, we will be the leading manufacturer of natural vanilla ice cream in Malaysia. And (hopefully), we will also be the world’s leading vanilla producer and will export to more countries, apart from Singapore. We are already franchising out our farming activities and currently have about 500 members under Vanilla Temerloh team. We will also incorporate new technology along the way.
Giving vanilla the edge through smart farming
Ezra Tan Koon Hock, the Managing Director of Kairos Agriculture shares his vision and modus operandi in moving vanilla farming to the next level in Malaysia.
Why is your farm called a smart farm?
Our vanilla is cultivated under controlled environment in modern farming, while the other vanilla farms are conventional farming. It’s called a smart farm because we have implemented smart farming technologies in our farm such as IoT, Big Data, AI and Machine Learning. What are some of the technologies used in your farm?
We adopt Smart Farming technology by setting up an automatic misting system in the farm whereby the misting system will be activated automatically when the weather is too hot and the humidity is too low. Not only can we control the misting system easily at any time and anywhere, unlike the standard pre-set misting system, but also our system prevents unnecessary water wastage where it will only be activated when necessary conditions are needed.
Besides the above, we also collect data through sensors that have been implemented in our farm, in order for our Research Partner, University Science Malaysia, to analyse and generate the data. Our partner will make proper, strategic and operational decisions in the future.
We are also partnering with a few researchers and market practitioners for other technologies like Vanilla tissue cultivation, pilot testing and productization and further smart farming technology strategies. Where do you plan to export them?
We have been exporting our Vanilla Pods to Japan and we are also exploring to export to China. How many staff do you have?
About 25 for the current phase and we foresee more for the subsequent phase.
What inspired you to start a vanilla smart farm?
Since 2018, Kairos Agriculture started its journey in Sarawak by honing its farming skills with the team in planting vanilla, mushrooms and bananas. We were supported by a team of expert farmers, IR Technology practitioners and seasoned entrepreneurs with diversified experiences in their respective fields.
The initiative to start Vanilla Cultivation is enlightened by the expired mushroom logs, the waste. We converted the waste into vermi-compost and tried on Vanilla and unexpectedly it worked. We sent our vanilla produce to a Japan flavouring company for testing. Amazingly, we received good compliments from them that our product is of world trade quality. Unfortunately, our produce in East Malaysia was not able to meet the demand from Japan. That was why we started Vanilla Cultivation on a big scale with the land granted from the Penang Government on 1st February 2020.
Have you seen any profits yet?
With our current farm size, we are aiming to produce 1 tonne of Vanilla Pods per year, with revenue estimated at RM1.5 mil. How did you get the vanilla plant (cutting/seed)?
The cutting is imported from our mother farm at East Malaysia, where the seedlings were imported by the Ministry of Agriculture into Sarawak 10 years ago. What were the biggest challenges you faced in farming vanilla?
One of the biggest challenges that we faced at the initial stage was that the plants themselves need a cooling period. They need to adapt to the environment as they are quite sensitive as compared to other plants. They take time to stabilize themselves in order to grow healthily. How did you learn how to farm vanilla?
Through our founder and mentor in Kuching, Sarawak, as well as training in Sabah. Later, we expanded our collaboration with friends in Johor (who are mentored by the Taiwanese), Selangor and Indonesia. Are the ones in your farm organic?
Yes, it’s 100% chemical-free. How long does it take for the plant to start harvesting from its initial planting stage?
Vanilla vines take three to four years to fully mature, depending on the farming method. With current smart farming technology, we are able to have the plant flowering in 18 months, and to be harvested in 26 months.
Was the curing or processing stage difficult or time-and-labour-consuming?
Yes, it takes months to cure the seeds and weeks more to extract the concentrated flavouring from the pods. After vanilla is harvested, the pods have no smell or taste. Curing and processing are needed to bring out the flavour and aroma. Until fairly recently, the curing process was quite complicated. The beans were first wrapped and subjected to high temperatures and humidity to “kill” the vegetative life. Next they were alternately dried in the sun in the day and sweated in the night for several months. Why is pure vanilla extract so expensive?
One reason vanilla has gotten so expensive is, it’s hard to grow. Vanilla vines take two to four years to fully mature, and their flowers only bloom for one day of the year. In order for the plants to produce beans, they have to be pollinated that day through humans. In most places where vanilla is grown, it isn’t a native plant, and there aren’t bugs or birds capable of pollinating the flowers. The pods need several months to cure after harvesting. The whole process is time-consuming and labour-intensive. What is the current market value for pure vanilla extract or vanilla pods (per kg)?
The current market value for pure vanilla pods is around RM1,500-Rm2,000 per kg. Do you sell in bulk? Who are your buyers?
Currently, a Japan flavouring company is one of our buyers in bulk. However, smaller volumes are already supplied to China, as well as local F & B related companies. What are your plans 2 years down the road?
Moving forward, Kairos Agriculture plans to develop projects in eco-tourism that will consist of farm-to-table café, outdoor aquaponics farm, organic farms, free range chicken farm, goat farm and outdoor training facilities to ensure the sustainability of the overall Agro-Park project. Vanilla-themed café is also available on the farm right now.
We aim to thrive as a chemical-free integrated farm whereby the whole planting cycle is chemical-free. With the collaboration with PwD Smart FarmAbility, we launched our Terrarium Project as the World First Organic Vegetable Growing Box. This box is dedicated for urban farming with our mission that everyone can plant. We target to have 500 new users every month for this vegetable box.
We wish to strengthen our R&D works on the development and/or implementation of the software that could collect and generate comprehensive data for better-quality and faster growing yield, while holding on to our principle on chemical-free planting. It requires setting up of the necessary on-site mechanism, infrastructure, internet gateway, etc. to enable data collection and product betterment. We are also looking for more collaborations with the plant biotechnologists and IR 4.0 technology practitioners as a collective joint effort to bring transformation to the agriculture industry. Will you be incorporating any further new technology in your farming?
Yes, we are exploring the light spectrum with Xiamen University Malaysia to control Pest and fungus; also to help in flowering. However, we believe healthy plants need enough rest, so we do not stress the plant unnecessarily. Will you be expanding your farm?
Yes, we are currently exploring providing Vanilla Cultivation Consultancy to a company in Singapore. What are the intercrops grown alongside the vanilla plants? Apart, from these, what other plants do you have in your farm?
Our intercrops are cash crops such as corn, okra, sacha inchi, and passion fruits. We also planted spices such as curry leaves, cinnamon, gantan, ginger, turmeric, pandan, pepper, chili, and mint. Would you encourage more people to do vanilla farming?
Yes, as we believe Vanilla is the latest trend in the agriculture industry. Vanilla is a high value crop that has transacted up to RM6 billion in 2018. With the comprehensive database and advantage the Northern Region of Peninsular Malaysia has in terms of land and climatic conditions, we decided to initiate our smart farming movement by having Vanilla as our anchor crop, complemented by other cash crops, herbs and spices. In the long run, we aim to turn the Northern Region into a National Vanilla Plantation Hub in Malaysia to be one of the key Vanilla domestic suppliers in Malaysia. It could also be a potential export for the country’s economic growth. What are the qualities needed to be a successful vanilla farmer?
Passion and patience are basic requirements for a farmer. For a vanilla grower, be a professional artist – the curing process is almost an art like brewing premium wine! What are the packages you have that are similar to durian packages?
We provide Vanilla Planting Service “You Own It We Grow It”, a one-stop-service for all interested investors. You own a module with RM4,200/module, with 15 years of agreement, from planting, curing, harvesting and selling to our ready buyers. Then we will total up the total sales of the harvest, and pay out to investors. An amount of 28% maintenance fee will be deducted per harvest. It’s a totally hassle-free investing programme. It takes 7 years to get back the ROI based on our projection on current market prices. And we forecast they can get back up to 488% for the 15 years.