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Young seafarer leaves job abroad to grow vanilla in Sarangani

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 4 April)— A young seafarer’s “flavorful dream” drove him to leave a lucrative job at sea and instead embark on growing vanilla in his native Sarangani province, hoping that someday this can help turn the impoverished province to become the country’s vanilla capital.

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GROWING VANILLA. Melvin Awid, 29, a former seafarer-turned-farmer, tends to vanilla vines which he propagates in his farm in barangay Kalaneg, Maitum, Sarangani. Photo courtesy of Juanito Awid

Melvin Awid’s vision was inspired by what he saw on the island of Madagascar.

The vanilla-producing island in the southwestern Indian Ocean and his hometown Maitum along the coast in Sarangani bear many tropical similarities, he said. But vanilla farming is something new in Sarangani and only a few cultivate the plant, mainly for home use.

“Turning Sarangani to become vanilla producer maybe a far-fetched idea now, but I always believe that big achievements start from small ideas,” said the 29-year-old bachelor and former ship officer of OSM Maritime Services Inc., where he served for six years, almost four years as an officer on-board a ship.

While on port call in Madagascar in 2019, Awid met a stevedore who introduced him to growing vanilla, which is abundant in the island. Madagascar is a known major supplier of the world’s natural vanilla requirements.

The stevedore who appeared untidy exudes in vanilla, hiding his foul smell, and this caught the interest of Awid who asked the man everything he needed to know about growing and producing vanilla.

What the stevedore revealed opened Awid’s eyes on the huge potential should he pursue vanilla farming in his hometown.

Vanilla is used in food, liquor and beverages as well as flavoring in syrups for medication and fragrance in perfumes.

Drawing interest

Determined to pursue his dream, Awid officially disembarked from the ship he served in October, 2021, and went home in barangay Kalaneg in Maitum to start propagating vanilla. In early 2022, he put up a greenhouse in their backyard and started propagating vanilla with 25 seedlings he bought from Malaysia.

Awid has since turned their backyard into an urban demo farm, now with 200 vanillas planted in large pots. As a demo facility, it is open to the public, he said.

The former sailor acquired a larger space near a forest, where there are now 500 vanilla plants that he use to propagate more vanilla plants. No visitors are allowed in the larger vanilla farm due to bio-security measures.

“We need to introduce vanilla on a large-scale within Sarangani or we lose the opportunity. My vision for vanilla is to create a network of Sarangani farmers with an industry builder mindset. No competition, everyone needs to work hard to achieve our common goal,” Awid said.

Rene Boy Takyawan, a known coffee farmer in Sarangani, has expressed interest to also venture in vanilla. Takyawan said he is “very much excited to see how vanilla will grow as an industry in Sarangani.”

Takyawan said he finds interest in the market linkage offered to vanilla growers, which will also consolidate all Sarangani-produced vanilla for classification and export. He plans to integrate vanilla farming in the carbon sink project of his coffee business, Inag (light).

Eliminating middlemen

Aside from propagating planting materials, Awid established an agri-based marketing platform designed to eliminate cartels and middlemen, whom he had the chance to witness exploit the vanilla farmers in Madagascar, who remained poor despite their being a major supplier of an expensive crop.

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BACKYARD VANILLA. A portion of the backyard farm of Melvin Awid, where he propagates vanilla. Photo courtesy of Juanito Awid

Awid’s online portal (Urban Farms PH) came to life, aimed at helping promote awareness about vanilla production and to help empower vanilla farmers and producers by directly connecting them to the market.

With the portal, buyers abroad will have a direct link to farmers even in remote villages of the province on real-time trading that encourages transparency in prices.

Awid said he saw the need to build such an online platform when he saw farmers in his remote village struggling with difficulties during the pandemic. They could not travel to sell their produce due to lockdowns and not having a permit to travel, Awid said.

Aside from raw vanilla pods, Awid said they also intend to sell value-added vanilla products and venture into essential oils. He said farmers must look into the vanilla value chain to fully understand the industry.

Natural vs synthetic

Most vanilla in the market are the synthetic and artificial type, which attract many buyers for their cheap price. “This situation drove me to advocate natural vanilla to consumers,” revealed the self-taught farmer, who admitted his learning in farming comes from online video tutorials.

Some vanilla traders also claim they sell real vanilla plants, which actually are not. What they sell actually are wild orchids gathered from the forest that only bear flowers, not pods” Awid said.

Listed as among the most expensive spices, natural vanilla is second to saffron and can fetch a price ranging from US$300 to $600 a kilo in the world market.

A hectare planted to a minimum of around 2,000 vanilla vines can produce nearly two tons of dried vanilla pods. Same area can accommodate a maximum of 4,500 plants and can have a yearly yield of four tons of dried vanilla. A vanilla vine starts to be productive three years after planting.

Awid said natural vanilla flavoring comes from pods of the vanilla vine, a tropical plant of the genus vanilla of the orchid family (Orchidaceae). There are many vanilla varieties, among which are Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla pompona, and the most common, Vanilla tahitensis.

What remains as a challenge, however, is for the local government and the Department of Agriculture to recognize the great potential of vanilla production in the province.

In Sarangani, local authorities consider vanilla as a new crop and they lack adequate knowledge to provide solid technical assistance, Awid said.

“We can make Sarangani the vanilla capital of the Philippines if we work hard to promote it throughout the province and support our farmers. Sarangani will set the industry standard for the vanilla industry in the country,“ he said. (Rommel G. Rebollido / MindaNews)

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