It was in 2007 that vanilla cultivation in Karnataka reached its peak. International buyers were then willing to pay Rs 30,000 for each kilo of dried vanilla beans grown in the state but ever since the price of the crop dropped, vanilla farmers in the southern Indian state have all but abandoned the cultivation of the spice.
The plant was originally brought to India by the British. But it was in the late 20th century that the vanilla plant became popular in Karnataka. Several farmers including LC Soans, Purushottam Rao, Palli Srinivas Hegde came together to experiment with the unknown crop. A Vanilla Development Trust was formed in 1994 to organise and market the crop and many farmers began growing it in coastal and Malnad region of Karnataka where the climate was ideal for it. It was also grown inside arecanut farms as a sub-crop.
The 2002 floods and cyclones in Madagascar, the world's highest producer of vanilla meant that Indian farmers along the Western Ghats and coastal parts of Karnataka and Kerala jumped into the fray to meet the demands of international buyers.
The Vanilla Development Trust managed around 3000 farmers at one time and assisted its farmers in collecting the vanilla beans and processing them together for uniformity. “(During the boom period) if 3-4 kg of raw beans are dried and processed, we would get 1 kg of vanilla . The price of raw beans went up to Rs. 1200 to 2000 to 3000 and dry beans cost up to Rs. 30,000,” recalls Sadashiva Sherigar, a member of the Vanilla Development Trust.
However, the prices fell flat due to several factors and by 2010, farmers reduced the cultivation of the crop. After Madagascar recovered from the disaster, buyers switched back to the African country's variety of vanilla. A fungal disease also affected the plants in Karnataka while mounting labour costs and the increased extraction of vanillin from rice pulp, carrot etc meant that the demand for real vanilla reduced.
Sadashiva feels that the crop was also given undue importance by farmers in Karnataka. "“When the prices went up, people started growing it as if it was the state crop. This was done by spending more than the necessary amount for its cultivation by placing shade nets, concrete pillars, and so on. But when this crop was harvested, the price of the vanilla had reduced. This led to some farmers incurring losses,” he adds.
Initiatives started by the Karnataka government to aid the cultivation of the crop were also discontinued. However farmers like LC Soans who have seen the price of the crop rise and fall in Karnataka believe that it could once again become popular in the state.
"It is quite possible (to revive) because the climate is suitable and you can revive it. Now, the prices are again up and if we can have a system where even the processing is done here, probably there will be a more stable market than having seasonal variation depending on external bias,” LC Soans says.