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Vanilla breeding proves to be complex challenge

To the home or commercial baker, adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract to a recipe may seem like a simple task. But to Alan Chambers, a University of Florida assistant professor of genetics and tropical fruit breeding, vanilla – and the plant from which it is derived -- is anything but simple.

Chambers is leading a team at the Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead that is teasing out the complexities of vanilla genetics and will use that knowledge to breed hybrids suitable for South Florida. Their goal also includes developing cultural practices to help producers get into what Chambers believes could be a niche industry.

“My vision is to support growers who want to try something new and exciting,” he said. “I think demand will always outpace supply, so growers will be able to choose among multiple markets, from tourism to retail to supplying local industries like breweries. I’ve already had a few industries reach out inquiring where they can buy local beans. We’re just not there yet.” 

Madagascar and Mexico are the largest producers of vanilla in the world, and the United States is the largest importer.