Sustainable Management Practices for Vanilla Cultivation

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $16,499.00
Projected End Date: 02/29/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Florida
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Dr. Xingbo Wu
University of Florida

Information Products


  • Additional Plants: vanilla


  • Crop Production: crop improvement and selection, fertilizers, nutrient management, organic fertilizers, pollination

    Proposal abstract:

    Vanilla has the potential to be the highest-grossing agricultural commodity per acre available to growers in Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, but foundational strategies for cultivation are lacking. Vanilla is the vining orchid species that produces vanilla “beans” (seed capsules) from which natural vanilla extract is produced. Management practices of domestic vanilla production have not yet been developed.  Since there is a nearly insatiable demand for natural vanilla extract, the USA being the largest importer, domestic growers located in favorable growing climates could greatly benefit from diversifying their agribusiness with this alternative crop. Therefore, responding to and supporting the rising interest in the crop, we propose developing responsible guidelines for vanilla production in the subtropical United States.

    As a new crop, growing recommendations are necessary to prevent the overuse of chemical inputs, decrease costs, and harvest a uniform high-quality crop; all of which sustains farms’ economic viability and will establish a sustainable mindset during the early stages of vanilla adoption. One of the highest production costs (~40%) is manual pollination, but natural pollinators have only been minimally investigated. The promotion of natural pollinators could provide a significant economic benefit and at the same time incentivize reduced pesticide. Data for the comparison of different cultivars has yet to be made available. Publishing cultivar characteristics would allow growers to choose the highest yielding and best quality types that are best fit for their growing system. Through these efforts, we hope to contribute to enhanced grower profitability, improved yields, and reduced chemical inputs.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Develop input recommendations for conventional and organic vanilla nutrition management.

    This first objective tests the efficacy of conventional and organic fertilizer rates on plant growth. Internationally, vanilla is commercially cultivated by most small acreage farmers without the input of any fertilization; however, this is unlikely to be the adopted strategy for domestic growers. Facilitating both organic and conventional cultivation will provide growers with options to meet their target markets. A Florida-adapted clone, V. planifolia ‘Painter’, will be established in 15-gallon pots with three conventional treatments of annual rates of 50, 100, 150 g/plant using a balanced fertilizer. Three organic treatments will include the annual application of  OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified organic compost materials, supplemented as necessary with an OMRI certified fertilizer in an effort to mimic the nutritional content of the conventional treatments. A control group will not receive any additional fertilizer. Plant growth rates will be recorded every six months to determine the optimal fertilization regime. All treatments will be statistically evaluated using ANOVA and Tukey’s T-test of honest significant difference (HSD) in the R statistical software.

    1. Discover and promote native pollination of vanilla.

    The second objective is to discover which insects act as native vanilla pollinators. We will collaborate with an entomologist and local park biologists to plan the locations and time for observing pollinator activity. We plan to use camera traps to record pollinator visits and quantify the number of pollinator visits, length of visit, and the number of flowers visited per pollinator. If possible a small sample of pollinators will be captured to confirm identification and for photography records. A sub-objective will be to describe as best as possible the environment that promotes the habitation of the targeted pollinators. Natural environment observations will be done in year one and if an appropriate pollinator is found, in year two we will attempt to acquire, attract, and house as possible the pollinators in a shade house environment. Camera traps will then be used to verify pollinator patronage to vanilla flowers in the shade house.

    1. Generate phenotypic data for potential commercial vanilla accessions.

    This last objective is to generate yield and quality information to rank the potential of accessions for commercial production. The primary determinant of vanilla extract quality is the abundance of vanillin in vanilla extract, which can be quantified using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). Other plant and bean traits essential for vanilla production include disease prevalence, bean length, bean diameter, number of beans per raceme, weight of cured beans, and aroma-flavor composition of cured bean extracts. This project leverages the vanilla germplasm collection at TREC. All traits will be evaluated individually in the software R and accessions will then be ranked accordingly to select appropriate high-performing genotypes.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.