DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is one of the world's most expensive spices and most difficult to grow. It's also in great demand. Vanilla is fetching top dollars these days. In Mexico, though, where vanilla originated and has been cultivated for centuries, it's struggling to survive.
As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it's the latest victim of the country's growing violence and criminal gangs.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Oscar Ramirez walks up a steep mountain path cutting through lush trees and thick green bushes. He's 29 years old and just started up an association of vanilla growers here in Papantla, a small town in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz.
OSCAR RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: This is where we have to grow these days, out here in the middle of nowhere, he says, hidden from the thieves. Thanks to rising demand and poor weather in other vanilla-producing countries - mainly Madagascar - Mexican vanilla is fetching 10,000 pesos a kilo - about $250 a pound.
That's good news for local farmers, but it's also made them a tempting target for Mexico's growing organized crime gangs. Many have diversified, trafficking in everything from stolen gasoline, black market gold and pilfered agricultural goods, like avocados, and here in Veracruz, vanilla, especially ones cut from the vines and drying out in the open like this crop we finally come upon.
We just got to the top of the summit, and I can see a little clearing that they've made where they're drying pounds and pounds of the vanilla. And the aroma of the vanilla just wafts up from the valley floor and hits you. It's amazing.
Ramirez says vanilla used to be dried in the center of Papantla. In the crop's heyday mid last century, Totonacan Indians sprawled their harvest out in the town square, giving Papantla its catchy slogan, the city that perfumes the world.
ADOLFO SAN MARTIN GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: What a joy it was seeing it carpet the whole town, says 62-year-old Adolfo San Martin Garcia. He's standing in the town square in his traditional indigenous dress. He remembers helping his grandfather with his crop in the late 1960s.
It was the Totonacans who introduced vanilla to the world. They used it to pay tribute to their Aztec overlords, who spiced their hot chocolate with it. When the conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, the Aztecs served him the drink. Among the many riches Cortes pillaged and took back to Spain were Mexico's vanilla plants.
GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: San Martin Garcia says growing vanilla takes a lot of hard work, and he gave it up as a teen...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KAHN: ...Turning instead to making easier money performing for tourists visiting this picturesque town. It's not just the loss of the older generation of farmers that worries Oscar Ramirez of the vanilla association.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)
KAHN: As he drives around his hometown, he says young farmers want a faster, less risky crop, like his friend Hector Canales Villa, a local orange grower. Canales says he can get more than just one harvest per year out of oranges, and the vanilla orchid blossoms just one day a year. It has to be hand pollinated - bees in the region have long been on the decline - and then the long pods take nine months to fully mature. After that, it takes up to two more months to properly dry it.
HECTOR CANALES VILLA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: But, he adds, our industry isn't totally immune from Mexico's rising violence either. He was recently kidnapped and held for five days until his family paid a ransom.
RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Back in his car, Ramirez says he doesn't know a grower who hasn't been a crime victim. Vanilla no longer fills the hills of his hometown. Total acreage has dropped 90% in the past 50 years. He's worried Mexican vanilla will soon go extinct.
Third-generation vanilla farmer Juan Salazar Garcia says he's been lucky this season. No thefts so far. He looks over a ton of his vanilla drying in the small mountain clearing.
JUAN SALAZAR GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: My grandfather and father were vanilla farmers, and they instilled the love of this crop and its history in me, he says. I'm staying put.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Papantla, Veracruz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.