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SPICES: Except for the tropical spices, which are generally harvested during the North American winter, markets have turned dull in the previous quarter. Tropical spices, such as Black & White Pepper, have continued their upward price march, seemingly without relief from a normal-sized Indian crop which came on stream in November/December. The White Pepper crop comes on in July/August in Indonesia and may have a moderating effect on the rapid rise in price seen during the past year, but no major relief is expected since the crop is rumored to be low normal in size and other origins like Malaysia, China, and Brazil are uncompetitive. We have noted increased demand for Turmeric, which has risen in price due to the usage of Curcumin as an antioxidant. Ginger, too, has seen price increases from its very low levels at new crop time (February/March). Nutmeg is up about 10-15 percent in price and is in somewhat short supply.

Mace remains extremely scarce -- mostly unavailable and exceedingly expensive. This is odd since, as botanically savvy readers will remember, both spices are made from exactly the same fruit of the Nutmeg tree -- so how could one be so much scarcer than the other? Well, it seems that Nutmeg has been too cheap to bother much about for quite a while. The Nutmeg fruit looks very much like a peach; the Nutmeg is the seed, or pit, and the Mace is a seed covering which surrounds the Nutmeg-like tendrils. There are, of course, two ways to harvest a ripe fruit: climb the tree in the tropical heat and humidity of Indonesia and pick the fruit (which is how it's done when there's good money in Nutmeg), or wait until the fruit falls to the ground from its own weight and then go pick it up. This second way is how it's been done now during the previous period of low price and oversupply. The fruit falls to the ground, splits open, and laborers then separate the Nutmeg from the Mace. Unfortun ately, anything sitting on the ground in Indonesia (including you) will soon be infested by the astoundingly huge and healthy insects of the Indonesian archipelago and, in addition, will certainly start to mold within 48 hours. The Mace, which surrounds and protects the Nutmeg, will, of course, be affected first so, as a consequence basically of a price that is too low for too long, Nutmeg is available, Mace is not. Temperate climate spices, Oregano, Basil, Marjoram, Mints, etc., are just coming on at this time. Crops are predicted to be normal, so probably another year of incredibly cheap spices is in the cards. Fennel Seed, on the other hand, was short last year from Egypt and while the March crop from India provided some relief it is just not as clean as the Egyptian because of a lack of color-sorting machinery in India. The Egyptian crop coming in June/July is anxiously awaited. More on this in our next exciting Market Report.

BOTANICALS: In Spices, demand is hardly ever a price factor since people won't use more Pepper, for instance, if it's "cheap," or less if it's "expensive" (at least not in the First World). In Botanicals demand is very much the major factor and market mover and demand has exploded in the last few years. This has led to many boom-and-bust cycles in the cultivation and marketing of these esoteric, problematic items. Demand comes on very strongly and very suddenly, sometimes in response to an article in a major publication like the one on St. John's Wort in Newsweek, or a TV feature on the evening news, or an infomercial on TV or radio, or even Blumenthal's shameless promotional efforts on the industry's behalf -- who knows? Good-quality supplies are generally limited and the market is emptied out in days, sometimes hours. The scramble begins. Prices for even low-quality goods skyrocket and companies end up paying high prices for poor material. Next, lots of specious or basically v alueless material comes on the market and even that is scooped up by unsophisticated users. Growers/gatherers are encouraged by the extremely high prices and seemingly limitless demand and good material is oversupplied just as consumers move on to the next "hot" herb. (By the way, is there anyone out there not growing Echinacea?) It is easy enough to figure out where the particular herbal ingredient you seek is in the market cycle by price, quality, and amount of suppliers desperately trying to sell it.

As an effect of burgeoning demand, even the "regular" botanicals are very tight in supply and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Early and regular coverage is necessary to obtain good-quality supply on a timely basis and good communication between sales/marketing and purchasing departments are key to anticipating increased demand. The real key is to maintain good contact with reliable suppliers.

POTPOURRI INGREDIENTS: Very dull markets. Lots of good material available at very advantageous prices. Will the "too cheap for too long" rule prevail here? Let's wait and see! (These markets are so dull that this is an exact repeat of last Market Report comments!)

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Peter Landes