Plows and Pitchforks/ Entre arados # 7

Dairy and Vanilla Spice

It was almost warm enough in the Midwest today to eat ice cream. June is celebrated each year as National Dairy Month in the U.S. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, the recognition of the dairy industry began in 1937 as ‘National Milk Month’ as a way to get people to drink more milk.

When I think of dairy products, I usually place them in their order of importance: 1) ice cream, 2) cheese, 3) ice cream again, 4) milk, 5) yogurt, and 6) everything else. Further information from the International Dairy Foods Association shows that approximately 1.53 billions of gallons of ice cream and related dessert were produced in the United States in 2011. As noted by the IDFA, vanilla remains the most popular ice cream flavor; I cannot remember not seeing vanilla as an ice cream flavor.

According to the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson penned his recipe for vanilla ice cream that included 2 bottles of cream, 6 yolks of eggs, ½ pound of sugar, and one ‘stick’ of vanilla (, 2010). Vanilla ice cream, an American favorite, depends upon the uninterrupted global flow of agricultural trade. Over 80 percent of the world’s vanilla is grown in Madagascar. The Haagen-Dazs ice cream brand is owned by General Mills, which has begun a new program in order to work more closely with vanilla farmers in Madagascar.

Economically efficient vanilla production is not feasible in the United States due to climate constraints. The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens reported that one species, “Vanilla planifolia is responsible for 95% of the world’s vanilla output. Interestingly, the plant is a member of the Orchid group. Aside from Madagascar, the crop is also produced in Indonesia and Mexico. According to the Kew Botanical Gardens, the synthetic vanilla on the market today is made from paper byproducts and coal-tar. I can’t speak for anyone else, but if given the choice, I would look for the natural vanilla product. The way to tell the difference is that natural vanilla extract is an amber color and is fairly expensive. The synthetic substitutes are lower priced and are colored either clear or dark (Burton 2008).

Vanilla production originated in the area surrounding Paplanta, Mexico. European invaders tried to replicate its growth in other countries, which is how it came to be raised in Madagascar. Today, Mexican vanilla output is less than 400 metric tons (Burton 2008).

When you reach for that vanilla ice cream cone this Dairy Month, remember that it was made possible by a global agricultural trade network, which includes vanilla growers on a mountaintop in Madagascar, and the family dairy farmers of North America. Someday, I’ll figure out what that cone is made out of.

You may reach me at or on twitter @veritzombie.


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