Why Vanilla Prices Have Gone Nuts

The flavor from vanilla beans is necessary for so many treats, but the beans may not be plentiful soon. (Photo: Inga Nielsen/Shutterstock)

I use vanilla extract so often in my cooking and baking that I keep it within arm's reach of my kitchen counter prep area with frequently used spices like garlic and basil. I add a little to my egg mixture when I'm making French toast and waffle batter, I flavor cakes and cookies with it, and quite a bit of it goes into the mug cakes that my boys whip up for a quick treat.

Quality vanilla extract comes from quality vanilla beans. Both are already expensive, but they may be getting more expensive as well as more difficult to find. Last year, a vanilla crop report announced that the 2016-2017 crop size fell "woefully short of expectations and the overall quality of vanilla beans has fallen dramatically." Additionally, speculative vanilla that was stored around the world has largely been sold. So, while investors made money on their speculations, the world's vanilla buffer has largely been depleted.

green vanilla pods
Vanilla pods picked when they're still green can be cured more quickly, but the result is poorer quality vanilla. (Photo: javarman/shutterstock)

To get more vanilla quickly, farmers have been encouraged to pick vanilla pods when they're green and then quickly cure them. When green pods are quick cured, dry vanilla pods are produced faster resulting in a lower-quality vanilla. Much of the vanilla that will be on the market will have that diminished quality.

To make things more dire, the crop report was released before March 2017, when Madagascar — where 80 percent of the world's vanilla is produced — had 30 percent of its vanilla crop damaged by Tropical Storm Enawo, according to Quartz.

Soaring vanilla prices

vanilla extract and vanilla bean pod
When the price of raw vanilla goes up, you can expect to see a rise in the price of vanilla extract. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

With the combination of all these factors, the price of vanilla has soared. It almost doubled in 2016 and quadrupled in the last four years. Vanilla was about $60 for a kilogram in 2014. In 2018, it's $500 to $600 per kilogram.

To make matters worse, the increase in price is not helping Madagascar residents, who earn low wages to work on the plantations and now face armed robbers who are stealing the crop from the fields.

For fear of getting their crop to market before it's stolen and also to raise much-needed money, farmers now have another reason to pick their vanilla pods when they're green. The green, quick-cured vanilla goes for only about $80 per kilogram, much less than if the farmers had the financial and physical security to allow the crop to mature. So, the farmers are getting paid less for a crop that's producing lower yields, and a cyclical problem is created.

What's the end result for consumers due to this quadruple whammy — low yields, storms, speculation and theft? We'll be paying a lot more for vanilla that's of poorer quality than it was just a few years ago.