Why is Ben&Jerry’s ice cream so good? Ugandan Vanilla.

I think that it is time that I elaborate on the work I have been doing while

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The foothills of the Rhezori mountains, where I traveled to find the fields.

here, so as to make you all less jealous of my travels and prove that it was worth Oxfam and Cornell’s money to send me here. Essentially my job here is to document programs that can be ‘scaled up’ and fully transformed into effective Climate Smart Agriculture programs.

I recently visited a partner organization of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), in Kasese Uganda. This organization, Rhezori Farmers Cooperative Union (RFCU) is a cooperative of over 2,500 farmers in four Districts of Uganda all of who farmer one or more of the following cash crops- vanilla, cocoa and coffee. I was there to look into the vanilla project.  Prior to arrival, I had never seen a vanilla vine (yes they grow on a vine) and quickly became fascinated by them and amazed with the fact that more people here do not grow vanilla as it is HIGHLY profitable. The market has fluctuated greatly, one of the reasons for its bad reputation as a crop and part of what the CRS project aims to improve. But at its high it can bring in about 40 dollars for one kilo. That is at least 8 times more than other cash crops. Since I learned this I have been half joking/half serious about starting a vanilla plantation here.

The project itself is largely funded by Ben and Jerry’s (who gets there vanilla from here) and supported by ‘Fair Trade’ as it is a fair trade crop- although to be quite frank it is not produced any differently than other crops here so the only difference is in price. Which, is the biggest challenge for the project.

IMG_2893.jpgI visited 3 farms that were thriving, intercropping vanilla with matoke/banana trees. I was impressed by the knowledge of the farmers, although I should not be surprised as the first farm I visited was the first vanilla farmer in the country. The second had been growing for over 20 years. They had both been using the skills and new knowledge that they had learned at union trainings and seemed to be very grateful to learn new techniques. The last farm I visited was the most impressive as a group of 30 farmers were all together, digging water catch irrigation systems, using natural fertilizer and planting trees within the field to improve the soil. This group rotates working on a person’s field daily, so as to cut down on the work hours and ensure that they all properly implement new techniques. This collective effort shocked me- but also would not work everywhere. In this region the culture is very community and hard work oriented, and they get enough rainfall that they do not need to water. This system would not work if you needed to water your own crops daily.

What did all of these people say was the biggest problem? Theft. Because vanilla is so expensive and small, therefore easy to steal, each farmer said their biggest problem was not finding a buyer or even growing, just that people come to their farms and by taking just two batches, they can get 40$. Ways to stop theft varies. Some farmers sleep in their fields. Turn a radio on very loud. Buy dogs. Put thorns around the plants. But clearly this is a big issue without an easy solution. Made me wonder if the high value is worth it or would it be better to stick to coffee where you know the gain.

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Some of the group members. The woman in the front with the blue flowered shirt was so outspoken, passionate and funny. She is putting her son through University with her vanilla money and I am certain he will be a big success with a mom like that. 

 

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