“The Danish market for vanilla is quite big, with nearly every supermarket selling vanilla beans. The normal price for one large bean is 120-150 krone, and some people scrape out the inside of the beans to get the sweet contents,” says Ann Sofie Forssling, Founder of Dansk Vanilje.
Ann Sofie Forssling
Dansk Vanilje is an indoor farm in Denmark that is looking to grow vanilla in closed environments. As Ann explains, the container has been equipped with LED lighting, ventilation, heating and dehumidification systems in order to create the perfect environment for the vanilla orchids.
Whereas the leafy greens and other crops typically seen in vertical farming often take less than a month to grow, vanilla orchids can take up to three years to produce flowers when starting with a meter-long vine. This makes vanilla a fairly high-risk crop for the vertical farming industry, which is already struggling with high operating costs and often low returns.
“We are starting with a very small production site to learn how to do this without it costing a fortune. There is a lot of learning to do with respect to the climate, flower induction, soil and moisture, etc.,” says Ann.
With respect to flowering, the question is whether you simply need to wait three years or if flowering can also be accelerated by providing a cold or dry period. In a closed environment, the climate can easily be modified to create cold, dry conditions to stimulate flowering. Ann explains that they need to keep the relative humidity high enough to prevent the air roots from drying.
Currently Ann Sofie is conducting a lighting trial with blue light on the one side, and red light on the other side of the container
So, how do you grow vanilla indoors?
Vanilla orchids are tall liana plants that can grow to 30 meters in length, vining around trees or other supports. At Dansk Vanilje, the use of artificial trees allows the vine to climb as it normally would and draw moisture that has condensed on the tree. Dansk Vanilje has also installed LED top lighting and inter-lighting solutions to ensure uniform light levels throughout the canopy, although orchids do not require as high a light level as other horticultural crops. The company is experimenting with both red-blue and broad-spectrum lighting.
In a recently built 200m2 growing facility, Ann Sofie houses various seedlings and young plants
As orchids are CAM plants, they take in carbon dioxide during the night to then photosynthesize during the day. While Dansk Vanilje is monitoring carbon dioxide levels and has an enrichment system, they use it very little as the plants’ carbon dioxide needs are low. Dansk Vanilje has also equipped the containers with various environmental sensors to track the temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and light levels in the space.
While Dansk Vanilje would like to be certified organic, it simply isn’t possible at this point since the plants are grown in a mixture of peat, coco and bark rather than the surface soil.
A vanilla plant seedling
Harvesting: hardly the last step in vanilla production
But let’s fast-forward three years into the production cycle when Dansk Vanilje will have its first homegrown vanilla pods. Even then, the challenge has only just begun. Once vanilla flowers are pollinated, it takes 8-10 months for the pod to reach full maturity, at which point the bean is still green. Vanilla beans are harvested green and then undergo a ripening period of 2-3 months during which the beans are continuously turned to develop the right color and taste. Thereafter the beans have to dry for another 3-4 months.
Ideally, this ripening period occurs outside under full sun exposure. However, Ann notes that the authorities in Denmark will not allow the drying of vanilla beans outdoors due to safety issues, forcing Dansk Vanilje to “soft cure” beans indoors. This can have a negative effect on flavor development, shelf life and pathogen growth. The company is thus looking for better ways to cure their vanilla beans that meet local regulations without hindering product quality.
Importing plant material remains a challenge
Another regulatory hurdle facing Dansk Vanilje is the import of plant material into the European Union. Dansk Vanilje has twenty healthy plants which were obtained from Wageningen University but in 2021, Dansk Vanilje purchased 200 vanilla orchid cuttings from Tanzania and had the space ready for planting before receiving the news: the 200 cuttings would not be allowed into the EU. The 200-square meter production facility was empty for four months as a result, waiting for plants that would never come.
Plenty of room for expansion left!
Three weeks ago, Ann did manage to pick up 50 plants from Slovenia which were not the healthiest but are better than nothing. Ann has also ordered 200 small plants from tissue culture and is working on lining up the paperwork to ensure their entry within the next three months.
For more information:
Ann Sofie Forssling, Founder
+45 9383 5156