As a group of YAGM volunteers, towards the beginning of our year we had the opportunity to visit a vanilla bean patch!* The local grower took us to his little 100′ x 100′ patch of vanilla plants in the shade of larger trees and showed us the vanilla bean plants.
He explained that each plant needs to be hand-pollinated, then showed us how to find the flowers that were ready to be pollinated. We helped here and there- but he was much faster at his craft than we were!
There were plants with beans in various stages of growth. He told us that after we pollinate and stretch the flower stamen, then the flower will wilt in about two weeks. After the flower wilts and dries the bean will begin to form at the base where the flower was blooming. After about three months the vanilla bean will be 20 centimeters long and the bean will be picked for processing.
In the town where we stayed there was a vanilla bean processing plant! The green bean pods are first immersed in hot water for a few minutes. Then they are wrapped in woolen blankets placed in wooden crates to “seep” for two days. Next they are sun-dried for one month and, lastly, they are stored in special warehouses for sixty days before they are ready for sale and use.
Then, after the beans have been prepared, in order to make the liquid vanilla that we use for baking, the beans must be soaked for about three months.
*The small-scale vanilla farm that we saw was one of many in the area connected by a cooperative to fund micro-projects and to ensure that the farmers receive fair wages for their vanilla beans.