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Friday, June 7, 2019

Growing vanilla needs care and passion, says Sabah farmer

Leo Komuji showing the vanilla plants at his farm in Kinarut, Papar in Kota Kinabalu. PIX BY ROY GOH

By Roy Goh
June 7, 2019 @ 10:35am

KOTA KINABALU: HOLDING a bundle of a dark dried bean-like plant, Leo Komuji, 49, spoke with pride about the product.

He was showing his latest crop — vanilla, grown, harvested and dried — at his farm in Kinarut, Papar, to a group of curious visitors.

To the uninitiated, vanilla is a type of orchid and is also a food product that sells up to RM2,000 per kilogramme once it’s dried.

An engineer by training and farmer by passion, Komuji ventured into vanilla 10 years ago and has never looked back.

“I have about 2,000 vanilla trees producing beans (vanilla beans) and I have just planted another 1,000.

“The 2,000 trees are planted on a plot that measures about an acre (0.4 hectare),” said Komuji.

He said when it came to selling the dried vanilla beans, the demand was far greater than supply in Sabah.

This year, he said he would probably be able to get 500kg of vanilla beans from his plot and once dried, it would give him about 80kg of dried vanilla pods.

He sells directly to his buyers because he does not have enough supply.

The dried vanilla pods can fetch RM2,000 a kilogramme.

“They come to me to select the dried pods. My clients include those who like to bake, chefs and expatriates.”

Dried vanilla can sometimes be found in shops that sell specialised products for bakeries or by mail order via Kuala Lumpur.

The dried beans would normally be supplied by farms in Indonesia.

“It was not easy when I first ventured into this, but I persevered through trial and error,” he said.

He was introduced to vanilla through a government programme in 2008 and while he continued investing and learning more about cultivating vanilla, others gave up.

Through the programme, he began planting 500 trees and it took him four years before he saw the pods in 2012.

“But the yield was not good. Then I took to the Internet and sought help from experts to improve my production. The yield improved in 2013, but I didn’t know how to dry the pods properly,” he said.

He sought help from experts to perfect his techniques in three years, but by then, other vanilla farmers had given up.

“Even the pioneer project launched by the government body ceased.”

He expressed hope that with his success in the last few years, he could get others to grow vanilla.

For over a year now, Komuji has been getting visitors to his farm, 30km from here, eager to learn how to plant vanilla.

The green vanilla beans.

“For me, I just want to teach people how to grow it properly or with techniques that might be new to them.

“Growing vanilla requires commitment as it may appear to be healthy but sometimes it hardly produces any beans.”

It takes about nine months for vanilla beans to mature and they need to be manually pollinated, he said, adding that these techniques could be taught to those interested.

Recently, he organised a course for about 30 people and apart from locals, there were also visitors from Sarawak, Peninsular Malaysia and someone from Iran.

Komuji has turned to producing vanilla plants or flowers as they are referred to, for those keen on starting farms in their backyard.

“We have local orchids but it’s different than the ones that are grown commercially. This plant can thrive in our surroundings but it needs care and passion.”

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