Saffron grow­ers look to get a foothold in the US

Imperial Valley Press - - LOCAL & REGION -

BURLING­TON, Vt. (AP) — As spring cro­cus blooms ap­proach, some grow­ers have vi­sions of a fall-flow­er­ing cro­cus that pro­duces saffron, the world’s most valu­able spice.

Univer­sity of Ver­mont re­searchers have been rais­ing the ex­otic spice now grown pri­mar­ily in Iran and are en­cour­ag­ing grow­ers to tap into what they hope will be a cash crop.

It’s not a hard sell, par­tic­u­larly in the short grow­ing sea­son of the Northeast. A crop har­vested in the late fall, when other crops have died off, that tol­er­ates ex­treme cli­mates and yields an av­er­age of $19 per gram.

“Is this the red gold we’ve been look­ing for?” said Pa­tri­cia Fon­taine, of Palmer Farm in Lit­tle Comp­ton, Rhode Is­land. She, her mother and brother at­tended a sold-out work­shop this month on grow­ing saffron hosted by the Univer­sity of Ver­mont that drew grow­ers from New Eng­land and as far away as In­di­ana and Cal­i­for­nia.

The fam­ily had been search­ing for a crop to grow in their high tun­nel, a green­house-like struc­ture with­out heat like one UVM also used to raise the spice.

“We were like look­ing into ev­ery­thing and then all of a sud­den this came up, and we were like, ‘This can’t be real,’” said Fon­taine’s brother Ryan Golem­beske.

UVM re­searchers said the yields amounted to $4.03 a square foot, com­pared to $3.51 a square foot for toma­toes, and $1.81 a square foot for win­ter leafy greens.

They es­ti­mate an acre of saffron grown in high tun­nels could bring in $100,000 a sea­son.

The sea­son­ing comes from the dried red threads, or stig­mas, of the plant’s pur­ple flower, en­hanc­ing dishes like paella, bouil­l­abaisse and risotto. It’s also prized as a nat­u­ral dye, for medic­i­nal pur­poses and was used by Cleopa­tra in warm baths.

UVM is not the first in the U.S. to raise saffron. There are other small grow­ers around the coun­try, in­clud­ing Men­non­ite and Amish farm­ers, who have been rais­ing it out­side in Mas­sachusetts, Penn­syl­va­nia and Maine. The Men­non­ite church had been look­ing for a way to pre­serve its small farms, said Peter John­son, of the Amish-Men­non­ite Cen­ter of Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture, in Wen­ham, Mas­sachusetts.

“We are con­vinced that this is the crop that will keep our young kids on the farms,” he said at the work­shop.

Ara Lynn, of Amaz­ing Flower Farm in New Ip­swich, New Hamp­shire, has al­ready planted some saffron to supplement her busi­ness of rais­ing an­nu­als and peren­ni­als.

“It gives a po­ten­tial in­come stream at a time when we’re do­ing noth­ing, or if we are, we’re just pay­ing work­ers and all the money’s go­ing out and noth­ing’s com­ing in, so it makes a lot of sense,” she said at the work­shop.

But she wor­ries about mar­ket­ing.

“If we can’t find a way to mar­ket it and get that kind of money that they’re talk­ing about then it’s just an­other en­deavor that doesn’t work,” she said.

UVM re­searchers be­lieve the more grow­ers, the bet­ter. “How can you start en­cour­ag­ing a mar­ket for saffron if you only have a few grow­ers grow­ing it?” said Mar­garet Skin­ner.

One of the big­gest ques­tions for the Amer­i­can Spice Trade As­so­ci­a­tion is whether la­bor costs would have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on the cost of the prod­uct, said Ch­eryl Deem, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

The process of pick­ing the flow­ers, gath­er­ing the delicate stig­mas and dry­ing them is la­bor in­ten­sive, but only for about a month — a very short pe­riod of time — and in the off sea­son, not dis­sim­i­lar from maple syrup, said UVM re­searcher Mar­garet Skin­ner.

“It’s the sim­plest crop you’ll ever grow,” John­son said. “It works. It re­ally does work. It’s un­be­liev­able.”

In this Oct. 31, 2016, file photo an Ira­nian farm worker har­vests saffron flow­ers just out­side the city of Hey­dariyeh, Iran.

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