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Researchers Want to Bring Vanilla Beans to the Florida Ag Scene

University of Florida
Dr. Alan Chambers, a professor of tropical fruit breeding and genetics at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, poses with vanilla plants he and his team have been working on for the last two years.

University of Floridaresearchers have made some headway in their quest for cultivating vanilla plants that would thrive in the state.

The scientists have successfully sequenced the plant’s genome, which means they can find the best genetic traits to grow the crop in Florida.

The vanilla extract commonly found in grocery stores comes from vanilla planifolia, a commercially grown species. Eighty percent of the vanilla consumed in the U.S. and Europe comes from the island nation of Madagascar, which is located off the east coast of Africa.

Dr. Alan Chambers is a professor of tropical fruit breeding and genetics at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.  He and his team have been working on this project for about two years. 

Chambers said Florida has a few native types of vanilla plants, and while those plants do not have any commercial value, they do have a higher resistance to diseases.

Now that the researchers have the ability to identify the differences in the species genetically, they can use the information to create what Chambers' called a "hybrid plant" — a vanilla plant that will yield a better flavor and aroma than the commercially produced vanilla planifolia with the disease resistance qualities of Florida vanilla plants. 

Chambers said the prolonged dry periods in South Florida provide an ideal climate for growing vanilla plants but doesn't foresee the potiential for a large-scale Florida vanilla market. 

“I can see our growers producing in niche and specialty types of vanilla focusing on agritourism, local markets,” Chambers said. 

Once Chambers' team is able to combine desirable genetic traits and identify ideal growing conditions, they plan to teach local farmers how to cultivate the plant.

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.