Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Photo Essay

Photo Essay: Inside Vanilla’s All-Natural Comeback

Synthetic vanilla dominates the market—but in Mexico, in the vanilla orchid’s native range, this tasty cash crop is enjoying a resurgence.

July 25, 2023
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Photographs by Mauricio Palos

This article is adapted from AQ’s special report on cybersecurity

The flavor is mild, the color is muted, and its name has become synonymous with plain. But Vanilla planifolia, the orchid endemic to Mexico, is full of history, a plant domesticated by pre-Hispanic cultures from the Totonacapan region in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, synthetic vanilla flavoring, including petrochemical derivatives, dominates the market. Only 2% of vanilla flavoring sold worldwide comes from orchids. And, despite being its cradle and home to the only known natural pollinators, Mexico produces less than 8% of the natural vanilla used in recipes around the globe.

But in Huasteca Potosina, the native region of the orchid, local communities are staging a comeback, producing natural vanilla and exporting north.

Farmer Bardomiano Hernández Hernández, leader of the trio La Danza del Cascabelito (Dance of the Little Bell), blesses the community’s water well at the onset of the rainy season. The ritual is performed on Saint John’s Day, recognizing the region’s patron saint of agriculture.
José Domingo Hernández Medina, right, also part of the trio, plays the Nahuatl harp during a ceremony to bless the waters. The rainy season is the best time to sow the vanilla orchid.
Sugey Morales and her sister-in-law Lizeth Díaz set out vanilla pods to dry. Demand for natural ingredients keeps growing. In 10 years, producers in San Luis Potosí saw prices jump from $5 a pound to close to $80.
Dried vanilla pods are also used in crafts. The main producers in San Luis Potosí are the Tének and Nahuatl Indigenous communities, who maintain their ancestral relationship with nature through cultural practices.
Farmer and trader Luis Morales likes to sculpt crosses and scorpions out of dried vanilla.
María Cristina Sánchez learned vanilla farming from the Totonacos Indigenous community in Veracruz in 2006. She started her own production in 2009, mixing vanilla orchids with medicinal herbs and other crops.

“Everything I plant in my land matters, but maybe the most important is the vanilla because it brings us a little money.” — María Cristina Sánchez, 60, farmer and healer

Besides being a farmer, Sánchez is a healer sought after by her community.
Sánchez likes to keep vanilla in the house, which she says welcomes her visitors with a nice aroma.
Luis Morales, 72, and his family enjoy a sunset after visiting a vanilla producer in the community of Ahuehueyo, San Luis Potosí. After learning about vanilla from the Totonacos in 2006, Morales realized the orchids had been on his family’s land since he was a child.

“When I was a boy I asked my grandfather what that vine was for. He told me he kept it because it made the coffee plantation smell nice.” — Luis Morales

Luis Morales Jr. weighs green vanilla beans from a local producer. The family has also become a bridge between local producers and buyers across Mexico and abroad.
Morales holds workshops teaching pollination and vanilla farming. Although the area is the orchid’s original habitat, commercial cultivation there is very recent. “I like it, but because it generates income, it is more expensive than all the products I know here in the region,” Morales told AQ.
A worker scoops some vanilla ice cream at a parlor in an upscale neighborhood in Monterrey, Nuevo León. Gourmet chefs and food producers are the main clients for the farmers in Huasteca Potosina.

Palos is an author and farmer based in northeast Mexico.

Tags: Agriculture, Mexico, Photo Essay
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