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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 17:25 GMT
Vanilla sweetens Indians' lives
By Geeta Pandey
BBC correspondent in Cochin

Agricultural scientist Dr Gopinatha
Demand for natural vanilla is growing all over the world
People in the southern Indian state of Kerala have discovered a new gold - natural vanilla grown on trees.

Known as the prince of spices, vanilla is fetching better prices in the market than even gold.

When Dr Gopinathan, an agricultural scientist, first introduced vanilla in Kerala about 10 years ago, there were not many takers.

But last year the crop failed in Madagascar due to flash floods, and the price of green vanilla beans shot to $70 a kilo.

That is a hefty rise considering vanilla used to sell for $3 a kilogram in 1997.

Fortunes made

Today almost everyone in Kerala, from farmers and engineers to lawyers and housewives, is cultivating vanilla.

Many have already become rupee millionaires.

Take the case of lawyer Jacob Verghese.

Some three years ago, he went for a swim with Dr Gopinathan, one of his friends.

It was a dip that changed his life and his fortunes, because he heard about the money-making possibilities of vanilla.

Mr Verghese planted the crop in his one-acre farm, and the extra income was so substantial that his young son, Vinod, is now able to dabble in the stock market.

He laughs when asked if he has made millions.

"I did not think it would be so successful," he says, "but now I am sure the market for vanilla will never go down in Kerala.

 Jacob Verghese (r) and his son Vinod
Vanilla farmers have resorted to barbed wire to protect their crops

"This market is very good and Keralites can depend on it forever. Already I have made handsome money."

Thampi Thomas is a former lawyer turned organic farmer who planted 3,000 vanilla plants in a plot of seven acres, and three years later he is a rupee multi-millionaire.

"Last year, the prices kept rising every week," he says.

"It was like the Information Technology boom of the 1990s. It was like investing in the stock market.

"All these years my farm was running at a loss, but thanks to vanilla, I have managed to break even."

So how much money did he make from vanilla? His answer: A few million rupees.

Headache

The success stories of Jacob Verghese and Thampi Thomas have inspired many in Kerala: the climate in the state is ideal for vanilla cultivation and following the rise in prices, tiny little plots and backyards have been turned into vanilla fields.

Its price has risen so dramatically that the crop has even turned into a headache for some farmers.

Vanilla is a prime target for thieves who want to make fast money, and farmers are forced to protect their crops.

Thampi Thomas has recruited two ferocious Alsatian dogs, while Jacob Verghese has built huge walls and erected barbed wire fences around his property.

George Verghese,  member of the Vanilla Growers' Association of Kuthatukulam
I pray that the prices do not remain at this level, because human casualties will occur
Vanilla grower George Verghese

Many of the farmers stay up at night to guard their cultivation, and many have acquired guns.

In Kuthatukulam, the vanilla town of India, George Verghese sits in his gold jewellery showroom located in the busy marketplace.

Mr Verghese is a member of the Vanilla Growers' Association of Kuthatukulam, and says the town saw unprecedented activity in the vanilla markets this season.

Special stalls were put up everywhere to buy the beans from the farmers, but, he says, the escalating prices have taken their toll on the social structure of the town and he wants the prices to come down.

"One or two friends of mine, who were patients of high blood pressure, spent their nights guarding their farms.

"They could not bear the stress, their blood pressure shot up, and they later succumbed to their illnesses."

Agricultural scientists like Dr Gopinathan say the crop in Madagascar this year is likely to be better, resulting in stability returning to the India market.

But scientists also predict that because the demand for natural vanilla is growing all over the world, the returns for farmers will remain healthy.

For the moment, as one farmer said to me, they are all laughing all the way to the bank.

Who says money does not grow on trees?


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