Career switch: Seafarer leaves life at sea to promote vanilla farming in Sarangani

Life at sea is undeniably exciting, but here’s a story about a particular seafarer who found life on land a lot more fulfilling.

Meet Melvin Awid, a 29-year-old vanilla farmer in Sarangani. But before he was a farmer, Awid was a seafarer with a very bright future. In 2020, Awid was a Third Officer for a large ship container company and, simultaneously, was the first Filipino officer in the entire fleet.

It was an honorable position accompanied with a high salary, but Awid made a decision to leave his well-paying career at sea to return to Sarangani with a new goal in mind: to make Sarangani the vanilla capital of the Philippines.

From a marine officer to a farmer, Melvin Awid now cultivates almost 1000 plants in Maitum, Sarangani.(Melvin Awid)

In 2021, Awid closed the chapter of his life as a seaman and started a new one as a full-time farmer.

To see is to believe

Awid’s farm is based in Brgy. Kalaneg, Maitum, Sarangani. He first started growing vanilla in 2019 with just 25 vanilla plants.

A vanilla vine up close. (Melvin Awid)

Of course, Awid’s decision to grow and propagate vanilla wasn’t random. During his travels as a seaman, Awid’s encounter with a man in Madagascar was the first cog in this whole operation.

“I was given a background by a stevedore, or a kargador. He educated me somewhat about the vanilla industry in Madagascar, its potential, how easy it is to cultivate the vanilla, and how massive the market potential was,” Awid said in Taglish.

Before he invested fully in vanilla, Awid first tried growing one plant. The stevedore he met in Madagascar gave him one plant which he propagated in a pot he had on the ship.

It was a challenge, considering that being at sea means entering different climates, but Awid learned that vanilla can survive any climate and condition as long as it is cared for properly. The success of his first plant inspired Awid to acquire 25 vanilla planting materials to plant in the Philippines. “That’s when I gained interest,” he said. “You know us Filipinos, to see is to believe. So you have to experience something before you venture into something bigger.”

The stevedore he met had told him about the huge market potential vanilla had. As he researched more on the topic, Awid learned that a vanilla pod could be priced at $590 at the global market. This had furthered Awid’s motivation towards his new venture.

Because it was a completely new field for him, Awid turned to online resources to learn more about vanilla propagation in depth. He learned from community groups on Facebook, and there were plenty of farmers who shared their best agricultural practices with one another.

After first planting vanilla in 2019, Awid continued being a seaman for two more years before quitting completely.

Over the years, Awid’s farm has grown to have almost 1000 vanilla plants. He has two sites where he planted vanilla. His first planting site is a 30 square meter greenhouse with 180 plants that is open to visitors, and his other site is an open space farm that houses 800 vanilla plants. The open space farm is closed to the public and only accessible by him for biosecurity measures.

There are 180 vanilla plants in Awid’s greenhouse, while over 800 plants are in a farm only accessible to him. (Melvin Awid)

Awid learned that vanilla doesn’t need intensive care for it to thrive. It’s a plant that likes tropical weather, and can be planted anywhere as long as it isn’t prone to floods. “My daily routine is just to check the growth of the vanilla,” he said. “For vanilla, it isn’t very time-demanding. The only challenge is that during flowering, you have to focus on it because it needs to pollinate. But other than that, for propagation, it’s enough if I spray [foliar] once a week.”

He employs organic practices when caring for the vanilla plants, and is currently working on getting the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification because there is better profit once the farm is certified.

Awid sells vanilla planting materials to other aspiring vanilla farmers, and also creates products from his plants. He creates vanilla extracts and sugar, and focuses on promoting the products to potential customers.

Vanilla extract, the added value products of Awid’s vanilla plants that he makes himself. (Melvin Awid)

A dream for his home province

In the beginning, Awid only thought as far as how he could personally benefit from vanilla, but over the years he gained a goal that was bigger and could benefit more people than himself.

After his vanilla began thriving wonderfully in his farm, Awid realized the potential it had in Region 12. His dream no longer consisted of only himself, but it now involves all of Sarangani.

“We’re trying to raise awareness, especially here in Region 12, that vanilla is highly thriving here in our region,” Awid said. Their local farmers tend to focus mostly on the typical high value crops, such as coffee, corn, cacao. “Our team is trying to educate our farmers that we have other commodities that Pinoys can venture into that aren't just for survival but for the betterment of the future, like an investment.”

To realize his dream, Awid joined the region’s Young Farmers Challenge in 2022. He made it known that vanilla had a bright future in Sarangani, and worked hard on his pitch, but unfortunately he had not reached the national stage.

Awid promoted his products to the Department of Trade and Industry’s Sarangani branch officers. (Melvin Awid)

However, Awid was not discouraged. He continued to promote vanilla to different communities and on different platforms. His greenhouse is open to the public to allow people to visit and learn about the plant, how to cultivate it, and its market potential for free.

“From self-interest, which was supposed to be just for myself, now we are sharing our ideas and practices to others,” said Awid.

He established a community of vanilla growers in which members have market linkage, and will be part of Awid’s future plan to export top quality vanilla to other countries. Awid made efforts to connect with foreign corporations to become their clients for the vanilla export once they are able to produce a large enough amount.

Awid is determined to spread vanilla throughout the province and promotes his farm’s products to Region 12’s Department of Tourism Regional Director. (Melvin Awid)

Aside from his vanilla farm, Awid also co-founded an online store named Urban Farms PH that sells local chocolates, coffee, honey, and more. This store serves as the medium between local farmers and their clients, especially because Awid saw the challenges that farmers faced when delivering produce to customers.

“During the pandemic, I encountered one vegetable farmer who had his pechay and other leafy vegetables rot. It was then that he shared his sentiments,” he said. “The challenge during that time was that you couldn’t cross the border if you didn’t have your own car. So what happened is that his vegetables spoiled and he wasn’t even able to bring it to the market.”

Awid shared that story with his friend who was a fellow seafarer, and the two decided to launch the online store in an attempt to help the locals. “We weren’t sure at first, but when we launched the store we were overwhelmed by the support,” he said.

Vanilla isn’t included in the online store’s sold commodities because Awid hopes to focus on local artisans to propagate vanilla throughout the region. For now, Awid focuses on the vanilla’s added value products which are the vanilla extract and sugar he makes himself.

Sea and soil

Dreams can be developed over time. Although Awid had studied and trained to become the seafarer he wanted, he has no regrets turning to farming.

Although vanilla is a low maintenance crop, Awid makes sure to provide the ebay environment for it to thrive. (Melvin Awid)

But there are plenty of qualities from seafaring that Awid found effective in his new life. “Safety precautions from being a seaman could be applied here because this is food,” he said. “When I was a maritime officer, we made sure that everyone was equipped with knowledge and equipped with personal equipment. We ensured that the work we do for the day is satisfactory. Actually, what really can be applied is leadership and management.”

Awid finds his new career as a farmer as truly fulfilling. “When I’m able to share my knowledge with other growers, and when I’m able to share my ideas with others and they get hooked, it’s very fulfilling,” he said. He recalled the time he was able to hold a seminar for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), and how the inmates were excited to learn about vanilla. He said that they wanted their family outside to propagate the plant until they could be free and start a life as a vanilla farmer themselves. “It’s moments like those that I’m proud that I could give hopeless people hope to venture into something bigger.”

Awid may have encountered many challenges during his journey, but it still doesn’t stop him from continuing his work as a vanilla farmer and spreading vanilla throughout the region until it can become the Vanilla Capital of the Philippines.

Photos courtesy of Melvin Awid