When Patrick, a farmer and collector gathering beans and drying them in the dark about 20km due north of Sambava, saw a bunch of foreigners walk in his small village, the kind old farmer practically had dollar signs in his eyes as he lept to get us all ushered in.
He’d heard recently of Henri Fraise and some of the big exporters buying beans from x or y village, far from his, for 1,000,000 ariary a kg, or another farmer in Antalaha who had scored a million of his own per kg from some Chinese. Yet another village down the road through word of SMS, he claims, is planning to hold their vanilla until December, when it is rumored some foreigner or collector like Madame Zaza (one of the biggest in Madagascar) or Floribis will be buying for 1,250,000 ariary!
The ironically good but potentially terrible news for the farmers is that for years now they have been paid on average many many times the “fair trade” set price for vanilla beans by the international body and barometer, per kg, for the finished black vanilla….even and actually almost an entire year’s average salary in a few kgs. There is a lot to celebrate in the farmers reaping more a share of the reward for the work that goes into the world’s most labor intensive and tradition-intensive crop.
For many this will be a good year, replete with role models who gather and cultivate quality in the face of the greed and reinvest it in further growing and community capacity…and with other role models who waste and drink it all away in a binge. There are big examples of both going on now in the farming cooperatives.
The one thing I started to notice though, worryingly for the Malagasy’s sake, is that nobody really seemed to be selling….OR buying. Rumors abounded, but not much vanilla was changing hands nor was the dazzling price turning into dazzling payoffs. It is too early to tell, but the large export cartel may well have started a price war with their own farmers and suppliers by trying to raise the prices themselves. Trimeta, Henri Fraise, and the like have strategy at the heart of their daily focus, but if the big E’s are trying to sell vanilla for $450 to $500, the farmers sure proved that they can find out, which creates a standoff to take more of that total number for their collectors in the villages and keep more of the money in the farm.
This is going to be the most interesting year in the history of vanilla, and fortunes will be made, hearts will be broken….and the dessert menu of the world as a result will be different.