THE SPICE OF LIFE
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is being produced by a couple of enterprising, semi- retired Peechelba farmers.
BRIAN Jones and Shirley Brightwell are about to embark upon their third picking of what is described as the world’s most expensive spice by weight – saffron.
The semi-retired Peechelba Produce owners have been farming saffron since a visit from a Tasmanian Saffron (known as Tas-saff) representative seeking North East growers three years ago.
The Tas-saff representative was targeting the ex-tobacco growers in Myrtleford who had small acreage and who already owned the machinery required to make the beds needed for growing the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).
Brian, who’d farmed crops most of his life, visited Tasmania to learn more about this temperamental flower, and returned confident he’d found an exciting new project to try on some of his 800 acres which wasn’t being used by his 350 crossbred ewes, or leased out.
“We originally planted 20,000 bulbs, or corms as they are called, on land the size of about two and a half tennis courts,” said the fourth generation farmer.
“They actually multiply like a spring bulb, so you plant them about four inches apart. And after four years, hopefully they have all multiplied and they are all squashed in together fighting for room, so then you dig them all up and replant them.”
One of the major challenges is growing the actual flower itself, as it only flowers for about a six week period and the weather conditions need to be ideal.
“If you don’t get cold weather in early April then you don’t get flowers,” Shirley explained.
“It just doesn’t wait for the cold weather and flowers, so it has got to have weather at the right time. If you’ve got a good frost, you’ll get a good flowering. If you get a mediocre frost, like we did last year, then you don’t get many flowers.”
January 2014 was the first year the couple planted some 20,000 corms and managed to pick 6300 flowers at harvest time, which is in April/may of each year.
Last season they were hoping to have 15,000 to 20,000 flowers to pick, however the lack of frost only allowed for 7000 flowers to spring up, which they hand-picked.
As a self-seeding plant, saffron can multiply itself out eight to 10 times in four years, and with bigger corms it is possible to get 20 new plants.
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is a labour of love
for Peechelba producers
However, after four years, the corms need to be planted into new ground and into new beds.
“We are going to dig up the first lot we planted in December this year, because if you leave it all until the fourth year, then you don’t get a lot of flowers the following year,” Shirley said.
During harvest they pick twice a day. Prime time is just when the flowers are starting to open up, before the petals are open fully to the sun, which deteriorates the quality of the saffron. The stamen of the flower is the actual saffron. “We try and do the first pick at 8am and then we may go back at about 10.30am because some of them might not be out of the plant enough and you can’t get them, so you go back a bit later and they will probably come up about a quarter of an inch and you can pick them.
“Another bit of a secret is if you just irrigate them a bit at night for about 10 or 15 minutes, then they will all have a bit of a stem on them and you can pick them easier.
“The first year our biggest picking was 1000 in a morning, but a good picker can pick about 1000 flowers per hour.”
After the saffron is harvested it is placed in a dehydrator to dry it out for about 90 minutes – 45 minutes on a high temperature and then the rest on a lower temperature, and then it is ready for you to simply put in a jar.
The saffron will last for many years, however, over time the potency of the spice and colour diminishes.
Saffron contains several plant-derived chemical compounds that are known to have anti-oxidant, disease preventing, and health promoting properties.
Antioxidants that help protect the human body from oxidantinduced stress, cancers, infections and acts as immune modulators has been linked to the spice.
This novel spice offers a good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Additionally, it is also rich in many vital vitamins, including vitamin A, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin-c that is essential for optimum health.
Brian and Shirley sell their saffron direct to consumers, at Wangaratta Farmers Market, Wodonga Farmers Market at Hovell Tree Park in Albury, Benalla Lakeside Craft and Farmers’ Market, and the Yarrawonga Rotary Market.
The couple manage to produce enough saffron to sell at the farmers’ markets they frequent - the stunning golden yellow colour and hay-like fragrance spice fetching $10 per 100 milligrams.
“We have enough to get us through the farmers markets that we do, but not really enough to sell online or to restaurants in Melbourne or anything like that,” Shirley said.
“But we get so much interest at the markets and I really think it is a great thing for farmers’ markets, in particular, because people go to not only buy produce, but they just want to learn things and see something new.
“We have a lot of people who have no understanding at all of saffron and probably never use it, and they come and have a look at the photos we have of the flower and a lot are quite interested to learn about it.
“I don’t care if they buy it or not, we really enjoy getting to talk to people about it.
“The saffron is a really good thing to put in hampers because it is small and easy to carry, and if you are travelling around and come across it and you think it would be a nice thing to give someone or to put into a hamper it is very easy to travel around with.”
While they are not certified organic they do not use sprays on the saffron and up until recently have weeded all the beds by hand.
“We now have an organic certified spray that will knock out the weeds, but it is very expensive, however, when the flowers come out I will weed by hand,” Shirley said.
Peechelba Produce also grow and sell garlic and make their own mulch and manure that has now become quite popular among avid gardeners.
“We get feedlot manure, which everybody knows is aged and organically certified, and we put that through a hammer mill with really old straw that has been out in the weather for years, which is nice and fine and enriched, with no weeds,” Shirley said.
“We sell a lot of that. I also take some veggies to sell too. I always have an excess of vegies because I just like to have a big garden and you always have extra stuff.”
‘We have enough to get us through the farmers markets that we do, but not really enough to sell online or to restaurants in Melbourne or anything like that.’