by Courtney Llewellyn
Saffron’s flavor has been described as “metallic honey with grassy notes” or “hay-like and sweet.” It is an extremely subtle and fragrant spice, difficult to describe in taste but immediately recognizable in a dish. It has been associated with the Mediterranean and Middle East for centuries, but recently, it has been taking root somewhere somewhat unexpected – Vermont.
“We had a grad student working on IPM in our lab from Iran and her husband asked why we didn’t grow saffron here, and I thought about it,” said Margaret Skinner of the North American Center for Saffron Research and Development, which is headquartered at the University of Vermont. “We do a lot of work with high tunnel growers, and we had this assumption it would not survive the cold temperatures outside.”
The person that suggested growing saffron in New England was Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, who now runs the center with Skinner.
“High tunnels saw a lot of success with kale and spinach starting three years ago, but people growing those are making almost no money because of the popularity of the leafy greens,” Skinner continued. “We started by growing the crocus corms in milk crates, moving them outside when it got warm enough. The premise behind this whole project started with one high tunnel. The result was a yield higher than in areas where it is normally grown and we thought ‘This is pretty cool.’”
The entire project seemed like a long shot from the beginning. Firstly, Skinner and Ghalehgolabbehbahani aren’t horticulturists – they’re actually entomologists, studying insects at UVM. Secondly, there was very little history or study of growing the plants that produce saffron in the often chilly climate of the Northeast.
For background – saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus flower. The vivid crimson stigmas and styles, known as threads, are collected and dried to be used as seasoning and coloring agents in food. Saffron is among the world’s most expensive spices by weight – and that may be why the work done by the Center for Saffron Research and Development has been receiving so much attention.
“We got a lot of press with that first growing trial and that kind of blew our minds,” Skinner admitted. “It has been challenging getting funding, and the extent of our research is tied to funding. We have a million ideas and growers have a million questions. Just being able to grow saffron in the U.S. and how time intensive it is are the two main issues we see.”
She explained that the most common high tunnel crop is tomatoes, which usually grow from March to August and need to be carefully tended every year. Saffron, on the other hand, is planted in one year and its crop will be good for four to six years. Skinner the entomologist noted they haven’t seen a lot of pest problems with the crocus flowers either.
“There’s two to three intense weeks of picking, separating and drying at harvest time, but if kept in a cool, dry place the quality stays good for up to a few years,” she said of saffron. “I believe it’s not any more labor intensive than tomatoes and other high value crops. It’s not ready for harvest until late October and November, when most crops are already in.”
Producing “Vegetable Gold”
The first three years of the center’s program was focused on production aspects, Skinner said – “How do we plant it? How do we grow it? How do we harvest it? We looked at crops from Mississippi to Minnesota.”
She and Ghalehgolabbehbahani started with the assumption they would need to grow in high tunnels in Vermont. They submitted a grant application for an outside study for growing zones 4 to 5 for the autumn of 2017. They planted their corms in September 2017 and looked at their development the following spring, finding most corms did just fine despite the cold, suggesting they are fairly cold tolerant.
“The corms from that first year had pretty low productivity, though,” she said. “It was a different story this fall. We had so many flowers we didn’t know what to do with them all. It seems to be a trend with other growers we spoke to – that first year is the toughest.”
Patti and John Padua of Cobble Creek Nursery in Bristol, VT, took the leap to start growing the crop recently. The couple have been in the wholesale nursery business for over 35 years. “At a meeting I attended through the University of Vermont, I heard about people attempting to grow saffron in Vermont. This piqued my horticultural curiosity and in the fall of 2017 we bought 2,500 organic saffron corms from Holland and planted them in two one hundred-foot beds, three feet across,” Patti said.
“It is an interesting crop, especially for Vermont, because it blooms in the fall and is dormant in the summer,” she continued. “Our fall 2017 harvest was very light, but our fall 2018 harvest was bountiful and beautiful!”
One of the nicknames of saffron is vegetable gold, and with good reason. North American-grown saffron currently sells for $25 to $100 per gram. Each flower produces three threads to be harvested – and so it takes about 1,000 flowers to produce one ounce of the spice. So while there is much potential to earn good money by growing it, that income needs to be balanced with the intensity of harvesting.
“We recommend starting small, and some of our initial growers are now expanding. What’s amazing me is how much money they’re getting per gram,” Skinner said. “I know one grower in California selling her organic product for $100 a gram. Is that sustainable? Probably not – but the industry has yet to really promote the product.”
Forty-three tons of saffron were imported to the U.S. in 2016, and there are estimates the demand will triple by 2025, according to Skinner. She feels saffron is perfect for supplemental income as “it’s a pretty easy-going crop.”
“You put it in the ground, and a month later it starts to come up. It’s not a particularly complicated crop,” she said. “You may not get rich growing it, but it’s such a cool crop. I’m realizing more and more you can make money with it, though.”
The Saffron Sodality
In addition to their studies, the Center for Saffron Research and Development hosts workshops for those wishing to learn more about the spice. They hosted their first workshop in 2016. “We knew we needed a product before we considered a marketing plan, so that first workshop focused pretty much on growing only,” Skinner explained. “We had 90 people attend the first workshop, and more than 110 in 2018. We know these aren’t huge numbers, but the subject matter is very specific in scope. People come from all over the country, and this year, from all over the world.”
“Saffron: Production Progress & Market Promise,” the 2019 workshop, is scheduled for March 15 in Burlington, VT. Speakers this year include Gaetano De Felice, a grower from Italy; Mounira Lage, a researcher from Morocco; Hans Rottveel, a corm producer from the Netherlands; and Steve Leach and Parker Shorey, growers from Vermont, as well as others well versed in all things saffron.
“Our growers know things now, from experience, and are becoming experts in their own right,” Skinner said. Saffron.net, the center’s community forum, now has 450 growers involved, and the center receives up to five inquiries a week from people trying to join.
“A year ago we did a survey, mostly with people on the site, and as of March 2018 (from 74 responses) we had growers in 19 different states – 34 percent of respondents were Vermonters,” Skinner said. She noted there is another big segment of growers not online: Amish and Mennonite farmers also grow a lot of saffron.
Most of the saffron grown in the U.S. is for culinary usage, but there are also traditional medicinal uses, according to Skinner. She noted there is a group of doctors doing research on its medicinal properties, including Hassan Ashktorab, a professor from Howard University, who will also be speaking at the workshop.
The interest from consumers is there, and there is evidence the demand is growing. Now that is has been determined even the cooler climates of New England can support the saffron crocus, successfully marketing the stuff grown there is the next step.
“Marketing is the next big hurdle,” Patti Padua said. “I have one wholesale buyer and I am trying to sell to local restaurants that put a value on locally produced products. It’s been a fun adventure!”
Skinner shares Padua’s enthusiasm. “I believe now more than a year ago this will continue to expand,” she stated. “There are more new producers, and more growers producing more. It seems like more people all the time are getting interested. We all tend to think bigger is better, but part of me likes that this is smaller. We have more intimate interactions – that’s what I think agriculture should be.”
To learn more about the Center for Saffron Research and Development at UVM and the upcoming workshop, visit www.uvm.edu/~saffron.