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OK, this is big news, big news, if you eat ice cream. There is a global shortage of natural vanilla. Prices for vanilla beans are sky-high. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Gerry Newman buys vanilla by the gallon.
GERRY NEWMAN: My wife and I own Albemarle Baking Company in Charlottesville, Va.
CHARLES: In the bakery this morning, people are rushing here and there.
NEWMAN: Over here, we're mixing a bunch of cookies for the next couple days.
CHARLES: There are pies, cakes, and all of them need vanilla. Just a few years ago, a one-gallon bottle of organic fair trade vanilla cost Newman $64 but since then...
NEWMAN: Price of a bottle went from 64 to 82 to 245.
CHARLES: That's where it is right now. Some bakers and ice cream makers have been forced to change recipes to use less of the stuff. Newman has switched to a cheaper supplier.
NEWMAN: It's not certified organic. It's not fair trade. So, you know, there's a guilt that I have over that - right? - because, you know, we're talking about something that's all hand labor.
CHARLES: This is the first thing you should know to understand the current vanilla crisis. This is one of the most labor-intensive foods on earth. Vanilla beans are the seeds of an orchid. And most of them these days are grown in Madagascar. Jurg Brand runs a small vanilla business there called Premium Spices. I talked to him by Skype.
JURG BRAND: Every flower of this orchid has to be fertilized by hand with a little stick.
CHARLES: And that's just the start of it. After you harvest the seed pods, you soak each one in hot water.
BRAND: Then you have to wrap it in wool blankets for about 48 hours and put it in a wooden box to sweat.
CHARLES: The whole process takes so much work that five or 10 years ago, farmers were giving up. Prices for vanilla were so low, it just wasn't worth the effort.
BRAND: And so a lot of farmers abandoned their plantations during this time.
CHARLES: Prices were so low back then partly because a lot of food companies were using a synthetic version of vanilla. This is a single chemical compound, vanillin It's the main flavor compound in natural vanilla. The factory-made vanilla is a lot cheaper. It shows up in the ingredient list of packaged cookies or ice cream as vanillin or just artificial flavors.
But then the vanilla market flipped. Food companies noticed that artificial flavors are out of fashion. Here's Craig Nielsen, co-owner of the company Nielsen-Massey, which makes natural vanilla.
CRAIG NIELSEN: Consumers are reading the labels much more and they're demanding more all-natural and organic, even.
CHARLES: In 2014 and 2015, several huge companies, including Nestle and Hershey's, announced they were shifting to natural ingredients. They now want vanilla from beans, not factories. The problem is there aren't enough beans.
NIELSEN: We don't have the supply to meet the demand right now.
CHARLES: So these companies are fighting over scarce beans, bidding up the price. A bag of those beans now costs 10 times what it did five years ago. It's putting the squeeze on vanilla lovers. For farmers in the coastal towns of Madagascar, though, times are great. Here's vanilla trader Jurg Brand.
BRAND: There's really, really a lot of cash around in these coastal towns and places now.
CHARLES: So much so, a really strange thing happened last harvest season.
BRAND: The national central bank ran out of cash.
CHARLES: The farmers get paid in large bills, Brand says. And they were hoarding the cash at home because they don't trust banks.
BRAND: All the money was somewhere in this coastal strip under mattresses or in houses locked in or I don't know where.
CHARLES: Brand expects the craziness to end eventually. Farmers in Madagascar are now planting more orchids again.
BRAND: It takes nevertheless four to five years until a new vanilla plantation starts producing.
CHARLES: And this past March, there was a big setback. A cyclone hit Madagascar, destroying perhaps a third of the crop, pushing prices up even more. Farmers are so worried about thieves stealing those precious vanilla pods right out of the fields, they're now harvesting the beans too early. Which means right now, vanilla beans aren't just scarce and expensive, the quality is really poor, too. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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