June 20, 2018
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How global supply problems led a Maine ice cream maker to stop offering vanilla

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Sarah Wilder is co-owner of Wild Cow Creamery, Aug. 15, 2016. She said that the rising cost of vanilla is causing some problems for Maine's ice cream makers. Some like Linda Parker, the owner of Mount Desert Ice Cream, are not making or selling vanilla ice cream because of the vanilla supply crisis.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Asking an ice cream shop owner to name their favorite flavor feels a little like asking a parent to name a favorite child — it’s just not a nice thing to do.

But Linda Parker, the owner of Mount Desert Ice Cream, doesn’t mind spilling the beans. Her very favorite kind of ice cream is vanilla, that essential flavor that transcends its unearned reputation for being bland or boring. And yet this summer Parker does not plan to make or sell vanilla ice cream in her shops in Bar Harbor, Portland, or her brand-new store that soon will open in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a variety of factors that have all come together to make a perfect storm,” she said. “This has affected the whole vanilla market … beans used to be $100 per pound, with about 100 beans in a pound. It’s gone up to about $450. And there’s a lot of talk of there being no beans for sale at all.”

The vanilla supply crisis is a global situation that has local repercussions, and has been developing for a while now. Last year, many Maine ice cream makers already were struggling to cope with a steep price spike and diminished availability of the popular spice. Back then, none went so far as to discontinue production of vanilla ice cream.

As it happens, there’s really nothing simple about vanilla. Pods grow from orchids that are pollinated by human hand and take about three years to mature and produce beans. Vanilla is grown in places that include Tahiti and Mexico, but most of the world’s high-quality vanilla beans come from Madagascar, the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa.

Over the last several years, there has been upheaval in that country’s vanilla supply. Beginning in 2005, there was more vanilla on the market than buyers for the bean, and the prices dropped down and stayed there until 2014. Many farmers who weren’t making enough on their crops burned their vanilla vines and switched to growing other things.

This eventually led to a vanilla shortage, and with the shortage, prices shot up, according to Patricia Rain of the Vanilla Company, a California-based retail and wholesale vanilla business.

She said that the sharp price increase led to a “feeding frenzy” for vanilla beans, with some speculators allegedly using money from selling illegally harvested rosewood buying a year’s worth of the vanilla crop and selling it at inflated prices.

Then, in March of 2017, a cyclone devastated vanilla growing regions on the island. That caused more price spikes, decreased supplies and even some rationing by distributors. The situation also has led to turmoil and unrest on the island, and has been connected to crime and forest destruction.

That’s just what’s happening in Madagascar, Parker said. Other factors affecting the global supply include the artisanal food movement. Larger producers of ice cream and baked goods have switched to real vanilla from the artificial vanilla flavoring they had been using, she said.

“The movement has put pressure on people to re-evaluate how they are making their products,” she said. “The demand became so high.”

To produce six gallons of vanilla ice cream, she uses from 10 to 12 vanilla beans, and those have become too hard to put her hands on right now. Vanilla is not, however, something she uses in a lot of her ice cream flavors, including the local favorite, salted caramel.

“I prefer to use a sweet cream base instead of a vanilla base,” she said. “We generally only use vanilla beans in vanilla.”

But Parker isn’t the only Maine ice cream maker to be affected by the ongoing problems, of course. Sarah Wilder of Wild Cow Creamery, with locations in Belfast and Bangor, said that they will still make old-fashioned vanilla, though will not offer their Tahitian vanilla flavor as much this summer. The spice is important at her store, too, and finds its way into many of her offerings — but that is likely to change this year. Still, she hopes that in a few years, the supply situation will correct itself.

“It’s a three-year crop, so it takes a while for new farmers to have something that’s harvestable,” Wilder said, adding that the vanilla crisis isn’t the most ominous thing she’s heard about. “There’s also a looming potential for a chocolate crisis at some point. They’re saying that global warming is hitting chocolate hard. People take vanilla for granted, but if you tell people chocolate might disappear, they’ll get more upset. Even though I think they might miss vanilla more.”

Kathy Chamberlain, who makes super-premium Stone Fox Farm Ice Cream in Monroe, said that the vanilla price spike has led her to consider something that she once would have thought unthinkable: using artificial vanilla extract. She puts vanilla in a lot of her ice cream options, including chocolate, strawberry and espresso bean, and considers it to be a critical enhancer that rounds out the flavor.

Cook’s Illustrated, a prominent cooking magazine that performs extensive recipe testing, concluded in 2009 that — in baking, at least — there’s no difference between real and artificial vanilla extract.

“We don’t skimp on any of our other ingredients,” Chamberlain said. “For me, it would be a step backwards. However, if I can get the same taste, I might.”

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