In years past, a Madagascan farmer’s livelihood was regularly threatened by middlemen, known as vanilla collectors. These collectors entice growers with risky, short-term, high-interest loans, using farmers’ immature vanilla as collateral. In addition to these unfair business practices, this farmer has also faced the potential theft of crops due to the scarcity and high price of vanilla, as well as the effects of a powerful cyclone in 2017.
Unfortunately, this story is not unique. The 51-year-old vanilla farmer from Doany, a community in Madagascar’s northern Sava Region, is one of many smallholder farmers who produce 80 percent of the world’s vanilla supply, yet face threats such as these on a yearly basis.
Despite these external pressures, this farmer’s life, and story, is changing. For example, his earnings this year were three times higher than last year, which allowed him to build a new house and purchase a dairy cow and two oxen to plow his rice field.
The catalyst of his changing circumstances—and the quality and sustainability of his vanilla crop—is the result of a dynamic partnership between McCormick & Company, the U.S. Agency for International Development and NCBA CLUSA. This partnership aims to help vanilla farmers who have experienced unfair trading arrangements, food insecurity and other vulnerabilities to rebound and holistically improve their lives.
The world’s favorite flavor
Vanilla: an ingredient found in nearly every kitchen pantry, beloved for its flavor in cakes, ice cream, cereals, beverages and more. It’s one of the most delicate crops to farm, and it's central to the livelihoods and economies of the rural communities that grow it. The Madagascar vanilla crop has been devastated in recent years due to a poor harvest and extreme weather events. McCormick & Company, one of the world’s largest vanilla suppliers, is on the ground, aiding in the development of resilient farming communities and solidifying the crop’s long-term sustainability.
A delicate farming process and an imbalanced supply chain
Before you take a bite of a fluffy cupcake and taste the nostalgic vanilla flavor that reminds you of childhood, that vanilla had a long journey from farms on remote islands like Madagascar to the shelves of your local grocer.
Vanilla grows as a pod out of a delicate orchid flower that must be hand-pollinated and checked daily by farmers to harvest once the pod has bloomed and ripened.
When the vanilla bean pods are harvested, they are soaked in hot water, where they “sweat” for 36 to 48 hours. Then they are alternated between periods of sun drying during the day and “sweating” at night, with a final period of slow drying. The totality of this process can take up to one month. But the entire farming, pollination, harvesting, drying and curing process can last up to 18 months before the beans are ready to be shipped around the world. This labor-intensive process is what simultaneously makes vanilla so valuable and so vulnerable to weather events and market shifts.
In recent years, environmental, social and economic instability in Madagascar has created additional challenges for the world’s vanilla supply. In March 2017, Cyclone Enawo hit the northeastern region of Madagascar, bringing heavy rain and violent winds that caused mass destruction. The storm affected more than 400,000 people and damaged approximately 10 to 15 percent of the country’s vanilla crop. This devastation occurred at the height of a worldwide vanilla shortage that spiked prices and resulted in widespread theft of crops across the island.
At the same time, the vanilla market in Madagascar is being largely run by the collectors who plague the farmers. These middlemen set the terms between the local vanilla farmers and the companies that source the crop, often cutting the price received by the farmer by up to a third of its value and taking advantage of the farmer’s vulnerable position during the lean harvest season for their own profit.
This predatory setup puts undue pressure on individual farmers who often must prematurely harvest their crops to see a return. This results in lower crop yields, and the uncertain harvest creates haphazard payment schedules for the farmers. All these unfortunate steps in the process lead to a less sustainable long-term vanilla supply.
Finally, these middlemen often mix different grades of vanilla, use poor curing practices and purchase premature vanilla to increase their profits, thereby degrading the quality and integrity of the product.
Planting the seed for sustainable vanilla
Given vanilla’s vulnerability, it’s imperative to make the crop more sustainable and resilient. Safeguards not only improve the supply chain, but also stabilize conditions for farmers to ensure steady yields and better livelihoods. As one of the largest vanilla suppliers worldwide, McCormick is committed to cultivating adaptability to environmental and market stressors among smallholder vanilla farmers, and creating more value for them by eliminating predatory middlemen from the process.
McCormick works through strong public-private partnerships with groups such as NCBA CLUSA, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) International and USAID, as well as with export partners, to improve the quality, yields and traceability of vanilla while also bolstering farmers’ incomes and means of support.
To assist the Madagascan vanilla farmers, McCormick works with its partners to implement a co-op model that allows farmers to collectively sell a substantial portion of their crop to McCormick. Using this model, farmers receive a fair price without the risk of middlemen exploiting the price or undercutting the vanilla quality. This approach encourages adherence to industry best practices for growing and harvesting. It increases traceability and helps McCormick guarantee its customers that the farmers received a fair price, and that its supply chains are exploitation-free. The co-op model also improves overall product quality and supports farmers’ livelihoods by providing a steadier and higher income.
Beyond Madagascar, McCormick partners with its suppliers as well as USAID to train over 850 vanilla farmers in Indonesia on the multistage process of seedling cutting, distribution and planting. This training helps maximize crop yields and increase knowledge about the best ways to cultivate crops, thus expanding their main source of revenue.
“Sustainability is at the core of everything we do at McCormick. As one of our most popular ingredients, we’re keenly focused on making vanilla sustainable in three ways—for farmer livelihoods, the environment and a stable crop yield,” said Michael Okoroafor, vice president of Global Sustainability and Packaging Innovation. “We’re proud of the progress we’ve achieved with smallholder farmers and we’re committed to continuing to better their lives and the entire crop supply chain.”
Beyond the farm, and following the destruction from Cyclone Enawo, the company works with partners to help farmers build new homes at half the normal cost, while aiding in the construction and restoration of local infrastructure such as bridges and roads. McCormick also supports access to local healthcare by backing health insurance for co-op members, partnering with the National Board of Nutrition to advance maternal and child health and training farmers in first aid.
Education is also critical to the long-term financial health of these communities, so McCormick has been focused on increasing children’s schooling rates by building and restoring two schools, donating 2,500 school supply “kits” to students at the start of the new school year, and providing parents with financial support.
McCormick continues to work with CARE to rebuild homes and provide farmer subsistence to those hit heaviest by Enawo.
Sustainable vanilla production is dependent on the care of the environment—from the trees which shade the young vines to the riverbanks that provide irrigation water. McCormick has committed to sustainably sourcing 100 percent of its branded iconic herbs and spices, including vanilla, by 2025. To achieve this, McCormick is helping to restore riverbanks, train vanilla producers on water conservation and reducing water pollution, while providing technical support for the development of wastewater collection points. The company is also working on reforestation, including purchasing and planting tree seedlings to replenish woodlands for the long term.
In addition to the company’s own work, McCormick is a member of the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative (SVI), a private-sector coalition hosted by The Sustainable Trade Initiative that aims to promote the long-term stable supply of high quality, natural vanilla produced in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way. SVI’s initial and primary focus is on Madagascar and SVI’s programs aim to accomplish three goals: expand the supply of traceable and sustainably-produced vanilla, improve incomes for vanilla famers (bolster economic sustainability of producers) and stabilize and improve crop quality.
From source to table, McCormick is committed to crafting the perfect blend of high quality and sustainably sourced vanilla while enriching farming communities and safeguarding the planet. McCormick’s focus on responsibility underlines its commitment to provide the best-tasting vanilla to consumers around the world.
—This article was provided by McCormick & Company and originally published by The Guardian.