ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Growers and researchers in Florida hope the aromatic vanilla bean can provide a lucrative, high-margin crop for the state's farmers.
The University of Florida is heading research into vanilla, which comes from a tropical orchid and carries a hefty price around the world.
The goal is to determine how well the plants grow in Florida's subtropical climate, where the dominant crop -- citrus -- has suffered from destructive diseases and hurricanes that have shut groves and put growers out of business.
Already, the university reports that hobbyists, bakers and breweries are calling to line up more vanilla production.
"The interest in this as a new crop is huge," said Alan Chambers, assistant professor of tropical plant genetics at the university's research station south of Miami.
"Our biggest problem right now is growers can't find enough plants. We have people calling and asking to buy the beans we're growing, and we say you have to wait a couple of years."
Chambers knows that vanilla can grow in Florida because four native species of the vanilla orchid plants exist, but none of the native types produces authentic vanilla.
So, he's started with the most common commercial species, vanilla planifolia, the beans from which Madagascar and Mexico export in large quantities. Chambers has 150 of the plants ready to distribute to community center gardens and other growers as far north as Tampa.
Florida will never be able to compete globally for vanilla due to the cost of labor, but there's a big demand for specialty vanilla, he said.
"We'd be looking at extremely high quality, similar to the limited vanilla production in Hawaii," Chambers said. "We're hearing from brewers, herbalists, bakers and aroma extractors."
Chambers also helped a Miami area grower, attorney Abrahm Smith, obtain 800 of the vanilla plants for Smith's small, 8-acre farm. They take up about one-quarter of an acre.
"It's a hobby farm for me, but if vanilla works, it will be great because it has a very high-profit margin," Smith said. "I should be able to make as much from that quarter-acre as I do from 6 acres of fruit trees we've planted."
That high margin is what drove the crop to become one of Madagascar's top exports, but the bean is not processed on the island. Much of the bean crop is processed when it reaches the United States, where it is primarily used as a food and drink flavoring.
The price of vanilla has fluctuated wildly in recent years with weather conditions in Madagascar, from $600 per 2.2 pounds of beans in 2018 to $350 for that amount in June.
The United States is the largest importer of vanilla beans. Given the high value of the crop, and Florida's struggles with citrus, the University of Florida funded Chambers' research with a $75,000 grant.
Chambers also advises a separate project led by private industry that collects funds from interested growers to provide thousands of the vanilla plants from a nursery in Orlando.