Calgary

Bye bye vanilla ice cream? Key ingredient's price now 'rather astronomical'

Madagascar farmers say their crops are suffering from changing weather patterns and a greater world demand for the popular flavour.

Changing weather in Madagascar has had a big impact on Canadian dessert lovers

Village Ice Cream says it has dramatically cut back on using vanilla as an ice cream ingredient. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

The classic "plain Jane" of ice cream flavours may soon be off the shelf in a popular Calgary shop.

A spike in pure vanilla extract prices has forced bakeries and ice cream makers to reconsider the world's most popular flavour.

Village Ice Cream's three locations have stopped using vanilla ice cream as a base for other, more complex flavours, and they may take the classic treat off the menu entirely.

"I think our customers will understand if the situation is … just too expensive," owner Billy Friley told CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday. "I don't think anybody wants to spend $12 on a single scoop of ice cream."

Billy Friley owns Calgary's Village Ice Cream, which is feeling the pressure of rising vanilla prices. (CBC)

When Friley opened in 2012, he said he was paying about $50 US for a gallon (3.79 litres) of vanilla extract. Now, he is paying at least $550 US for the same amount. Recently, that's converted into $750-$800 Cdn, due to a falling Canadian dollar.

So far, Village Ice Cream has cut at least four flavours that used vanilla as a base.

"We would rather just not sell vanilla than use the artificial extract, so we will stick with the real extract as long as we can," he said. "If it gets too expensive, then we will have to take vanilla off the menu."

'Rather astronomical'

Prices are up to "rather astronomical levels" but are expected to drop slightly over the next few years, said vanilla dealer David van der Walde of Aust & Hachman Canada.

Regardless, he said the market and farmers must make major adjustments.

"I mean, there is vanilla available now, but it's extremely expensive," he said.

Vanilla bean prices are high, which a Canadian dealer says is directly related to changing weather patterns in Madagascar. (Suto Norbert Zsolt/Shutterstock)

The world relies on the island nation of Madagascar for 80 per cent of its genuine vanilla, so any issues farmers are having there impact everyone. Changes to weather patterns — a cooler spring, altered rainy season and intense storms — have made it difficult to predict an effective planting strategy.

​"They are suggesting that climate change is also affecting vanilla production simply because there are more cyclones, but also it's not as warm when it's supposed to be warm — there's not as much rain," said van der Walde, who has worked in the industry, including in Madagascar, for more than 30 years.

"So it's changing, and whether they can adjust to that remains to be seen."

David van der Walde is a director with vanilla dealer Aust & Hachman Canada. (David van der Walde)

A severe cyclone and other bad storms added to the problem by ruining some crops, and he said the high prices are encouraging thieves to pillage farms and mug people carrying cash for their businesses. If thieves are caught by farmers, they are often killed, van der Walde said.

"When dealing with countries like Madagascar, it's much more difficult. You've got political issues down there, you've got climatic issues," he said.

Other vanilla-producing nations haven't been able to fill in the gap, facing their own environmental problems — and it takes a minimum of two years to produce a crop.

Natural vs. artificial

According to Industry Canada trade data, Canadians imported more than two-thirds of its vanilla last year from Madagascar. They spent roughly $42.9 million on the flavour, almost four times the cost of vanilla imported in 2013.

Van der Walde said home bakers wanting quality vanilla should seek out reputable producers, or buy more expensive beans in tubes, as extracts may now be of lesser quality. But he warns the buying habits of big companies, not home users, are dictating the overall price.

Landen Merrill, 2, has one happy face as he laughs after taking a bite from his vanilla ice cream cone at Dairy Queen in Jacksonville, N.C. (Don Bryan/The Associated Press/The Daily News)

Not just local ice cream makers want to stick to the natural ingredient, which many say has a better taste than artificial extract. It's even used to add creaminess to chocolate, Friley noted.

Either way, it's out of the hands of small shops.

"The problem is, what do you do about that homemade pie?" Friley said. "There's nothing better than a scoop of vanilla ice cream on homemade pie."

Listen to how high vanilla prices send a chill down ice cream makers' spines:


With files from Josie Lukey and the Calgary Eyeopener.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with CBC Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.