The labour intensive task of pollinating vanilla is part of the reason why the popular food ingredient is so expensive
Toledo District, Belize — When vanilla begins to bloom in the summer months, farm workers at the Belize Spice Farm have only a six-hour window to pollinate the crop.
They have six acres to cover and they do it all by hand, using toothpicks. If they’re too late, they’ll have to wait until the next flowering season because it blooms only once every year.
“Harvest would be in November or December, and it takes about a whole year before we market them,” said Ancelmo Shol, who works on the farm and provides tours.
The farm pollinates by hand, he said, because the female part of the flower is covered, which makes it difficult for bees or hummingbirds to do the job. To get around that, farmers use toothpicks to manually move pollen from the male part of the flower into the female part.
Once pollinated, the flowers produce green beans. And once they’re ripe, which takes about six to nine months, they’re harvested and dried. The crop spends about four to five months drying.
The labour intensive work is the main reason why vanilla is one of the most expensive spices out there, Shol said.
“The reason we hand-pollinate is because we want to increase production. Some solitary bee could do it, but it would only produce four or five crops,” he said.
Edmond Albius, a slave in the mid-1800s, was first to develop the toothpick method on a remote island called Réunion, located east of Madagascar on the east coast of Africa. Without his efforts, vanilla production likely wouldn’t be what it is today, said Elroy Burgess, a tour guide with Taste Belize.
Vanilla isn’t the only spice grown on the farm. About 50 to 60 acres are used to grow peppercorns, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, curry, tropical oregano, turmeric and more. Native spices, like cow foot, also grow here. Cow foot smells like licorice and is used to flavour meats.
Shol said cinnamon comes from the inner bark of cinnamon tree branches, allspice produces berries that are ground up, and peppercorns can come in the green, white or black variety, depending on when they’re harvested.
All of the spices are processed and packaged on the farm. Much of it is sold to visiting tourists.
The rest of the farm, about 420 acres, is primarily for citrus fruits like oranges, one the country’s main crops.
When growing spices, however, the farmers sometimes use trees as a useful tool.
With vanilla, for example, farmers attach the vines to a tree called madre de cacao. The trees deter many bugs from getting at the crop and provide necessary shade, Shol said.
As well, they have patches of bamboo, which they try to keep under control, to provide young birds and iguanas with a space to live.
“Bamboo is kind of like a weed, so we keep it under control,” he said. “We have no reason to get in there (where it grows), so it’s a nursery for different species.”
The owners, Tom and Tessy Mathew, started the farm in 1990 after moving from Bluefield, West Virginia. The country reminded them of their childhood home of Kerala, India, and they soon realized many Indian spices grew well in Belize.
Their operation is likely the largest spice farm in the southern district, said Burgess. He said that oranges, rice, bananas and sugarcane are more popular crops. There’s also a few farms that grow cacao, the main ingredient for making chocolate.
“If there are any other spice farms in the country, they’re of much smaller scale,” he said.
As well, the spice farm produces teak lumber, an expensive hardwood, for its own use. The trees are chopped every 20 to 25 years.