The vast majority of the people in Kung Leng’s village rely on vanilla farming to make ends meet. In Madagascar’s lush green fields, Leng and his fellow vanilla farmers use its income to help pay for their children’s education and safer housing.
“Without vanilla, we would not be able to survive,” Leng says.
Record-high market prices have increased the return vanilla farmers receive and can improve the livelihoods of people like Leng. However, the increasing value attached to the trade coincides with a decrease in the quality of Madagascar vanilla, a trend communities feel they need to address if they are to continue reaping the benefits of the world’s current sweet tooth.
Without vanilla, we would not be able to survive.
Kung Leng, vanilla farmer
Cultivating vanilla requires patience. It takes four years for Leng’s vanilla orchids to bloom after he’s planted them. The flowers typically open in August, from early in the morning until noon, and at this moment, Leng hand-pollinates each flower — the step that enables the plant to produce vanilla beans.
“We have to work in cold weather, in mosquito-infested areas and under the rain,” Leng says. Nine months later, the vanilla pods will reach full maturity.
The country’s vanilla quality has taken a hit primarily because farmers have started harvesting the vanilla pods before nine months have passed, in an effort to protect their crops from thieves looking to get in on the lucrative market.
It’s something that creates an opportunity within the industry for other places trying to distinguish themselves in the international market, Leng says. He hopes protecting the quality of Madagascar’s vanilla will also protect farming for future generations.
Video by Fellipe Abreu, Henrique G. Hedler, Vitor Pessoa, Thay Prado and Fraser Stephen. Accompanying text by Olivia Miltner.