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From port to pot: Seafarer ditches job to pursue vanilla farming in Sarangani [Rappler]

When people ask me why I would quit a promising position in the maritime sector, I always reply that I am following what my creative mind is telling me to do. Not getting tired of living a routine existence, speaking up for the voiceless, and bringing about small-scale change. - Melvin A.

GENERAL SANTOS, Philippines – From seafarer to farmer, Melvin Awid left a good-paying job at sea to pursue his newfound passion for growing vanilla in his native Sarangani, with hopes of turning it into the country’s vanilla capital and helping the impoverished province.


Awid’s passion began in 2019 when he first visited the island of Madagascar, a major supplier of natural vanilla, and saw its similarities to his hometown of Maitum in Sarangani in the Soccsksargen region. The cultivation of vanilla is still relatively new to the region, with only a few growing it for home use.


Vanilla is used in food, liquor, and beverages as well as flavoring in syrups for medication and fragrance in perfumes.


Natural vanilla is highly valuable, and it is considered the world’s second most expensive spice after saffron. The price of vanilla can range from $300 to $600 per kilogram. However, despite its high cost, a single hectare of vanilla plantation can yield almost two tons of dried vanilla pods during harvest, making it a lucrative crop for farmers.


Vanilla flavoring comes from the pods of the vanilla vine, a tropical plant of the orchid family (Orchidaceae). Among the many vanilla varieties are Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla pompona, and the most common, Vanilla tahitensis.


The vine-like vanilla orchids require a warm and humid climate to thrive, growing best in regions with high rainfall and moderate temperatures.


Cultivating vanilla orchids to produce the popular vanilla flavor requires expertise, effort, and time but can be beneficial for farmers who harvest high-quality vanilla. While labor-intensive, the valuable product can make it a rewarding venture for farmers who harvest high-quality vanilla.


“Turning Sarangani into a vanilla producer may be a far-fetched idea now, but I always believe that big achievements start from small ideas,” said the 29-year-old bachelor and former ship officer of OSM Maritime Services Incorporated, where he served for six years.


Awid’s interest was ignited during a port call in Madagascar when he met a stevedore who introduced him to the abundant vanilla plant there. 


Despite the stevedore’s untidy appearance, Awid said he couldn’t help but notice the sweet aroma of vanilla that his new friend exuded to mask an unpleasant smell. 

That chance encounter, Awid said, opened his eyes to the huge potential of vanilla farming and set him on a path toward pursuing his newfound interest.


Awid learned everything he could about growing and producing vanilla from the man and realized the huge potential of vanilla farming in his hometown.


Determined to pursue his newfound interest, Awid left the ship he served in October 2021 and returned home to Barangay Kalaneg in Maitum to start propagating vanilla. 


In early 2022, he put up a greenhouse in their backyard and started propagating vanilla with 25 seedlings he bought from Malaysia.

Awid has since turned his backyard into an urban demo farm with 200 vanillas planted in large pots. 


As a demo facility, it is open to the public to view anytime, he said. 


He has also acquired a larger space near a forest, where he currently has 500 vanilla plants that he uses to propagate more vanilla plants. No visitors are allowed, however, in the larger vanilla farm due to biosecurity measures.


“We need to introduce vanilla on a large scale within Sarangani, or we will lose the opportunity. My vision for Sarangani vanilla is to create a network of farmers with an industry-builder mindset. No competition, everyone needs to work hard to achieve our common goal,” Awid said.


Prominent Sarangani coffee farmer Rene Boy Takyawan said he took interest in venturing into vanilla, adding that he was “very much excited to see how vanilla will grow as an industry in Sarangani.” 


Takyawan plans to integrate vanilla farming into the carbon sink project of his coffee business known as Inag.


Aside from propagating planting materials, Awid has established an agri-based marketing platform designed to avoid cartels and middlemen. 


The online portal, Urban Farms PH, aims to help promote awareness about vanilla production and empower vanilla farmers and producers by directly connecting them to the market.


With the portal, buyers abroad can have a direct link to farmers, even in remote villages of the province, enabling real-time trading that encourages transparency in prices.


Awid said he saw the need to build such an online platform when he saw farmers in his remote village struggling with difficulties during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic when they could not travel to sell their produce due to government-imposed health restrictions.


Aside from raw vanilla pods, Awid said they would also sell value-added vanilla products and venture into essential oils. 


He said farmers must look into the vanilla value chain to fully understand the industry.

A self-taught farmer, Awid has been advocating natural vanilla to consumers, revealing that artificial varieties are the most commonly sought after due to their cheap prices.


He said some vanilla traders falsely claim to sell genuine vanilla plants, when in fact they offer wild orchids gathered from the forest that only bear flowers, not pods.


Awid, who admitted relying on online video tutorials, said he was further driven to promote natural vanilla after studying the trend.


He said a major challenge to vanilla production in the province is the lack of recognition from the local government and the Department of Agriculture (DA) of its potential. 


In Sarangani, vanilla is considered a new crop, and technical assistance is lacking, according to Awid.


Awid said he has high hopes that Sarangani can emerge as the country’s vanilla capital, and that creating more public awareness and supporting farmers can turn it into a reality. 

“Sarangani can set the industry standard for the vanilla industry in the country,” he said.


(Original article written by Rommel Rebollido and published online by Rappler.com)

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