TEMERLOH: When Mohd Feisal Mohd Norawi choose to plant vanilla seeds on a piece of land at Kampung Bangau Parit near here in 2008, he had little knowledge about the plant and only relied on information from the internet.
The 35-year-old was close to abandoning his farm in 2012 when vanilla orchids bloomed, prompting him to immediately hand-pollinate the flowers which later grew into vanilla beans.
Since then, there has been no turning back for the father-of-four as the vanilla pods are sold to buyers from the Middle East, Singapore and Germany to be used in the baking industry.
Feisal said he ventured into the industry by planting 800 vanilla seeds on a 1.2ha piece of land in 2008 and the plant was supposed to start producing flowers after three years.
"There was no progress and I was planning to give up and instead plant vegetables which would allow me to earn returns within a short time. Suddenly one morning in March 2012, I noticed several vanilla orchids were in full bloom.
"A vanilla bean plant farmer In Jerantut had taught me the hand pollination method and I managed to successfully complete it. The vanilla orchid lasts only 24 hours and it has to be pollinated by noon or else the flowers will fade, fall off the stem, and no vanilla pods can be produced," he said when met at his farm.
Faisal said the successfully pollinated pods would begin to swell, forming the bean and he has to wait for about eight months before he can pluck them before drying in hot sun for about a month.
"Once completely dry the beans will be soft, a little oily and have an intense vanilla fragrance thus making it ideal to be sold or extracted. One kilogramme of grade A vanilla can fetch about RM1,800 in the market and despite its price, the beans continue to receive strong demand throughout the world.
"The process of producing the vanilla pods is complicated and it could take four years before the plants becomes mature....it also depends on how the plants are kept and grown," said Feisal, who works in a private company.
Faisal said there were some buyers from the Middle East who came to his farm to buy the vanilla pods to take them back to their country to extract and pack before reselling it in European countries as spices.
"I was informed that the vanilla pods are widely used to bake cakes in hotels overseas but sadly I cannot meet the demands as it is not easy to consistently supply the pods. Several companies in the United States contacted me for the supplies but I cannot meet their demand for 100kg of vanilla beans to be exported.
"Currently, I am among three vanilla farm operators in Malaysia. Two others are in Jerantut and Sabah, I am still doing research on how to produce organic vanilla without using any chemicals. The industry has huge potential and maybe the government can provide some assistance to get more people to be involved in vanilla farming," said Feisal, who promotes the vanilla through his Facebook page Vanilla Temerloh.
The tropical plant, which is a member of the orchid family, is the second-most expensive spice after saffron because growing the vanilla seed pods is labour-intensive.