Saffron offers a golden agricultural opportunity | Feast and Field: Food Starts in the Field

As an agricultural crop, saffron takes a lot of effort for a small, tasty reward. But for those who grow and produce the fragrant floral spice, it’s worth it.

While considering options on how to use some of the land he owned, lawyer and musician Brian Leven discovered growing saffron as a side business after reading about viability studies conducted by the North American Saffron Research and Development Center at the nearby University of Vermont. . He now grows saffron and shiitake mushrooms on his Golden Thread farm to sell online and in local markets, while maintaining a small vegetable garden for his family’s private use.

“I’m a foodie; I like being able to grow what I eat and I thought saffron sounded interesting,” he says. “I don’t grow a ton – a few hundred grams isn’t a lot. I tend to sell the previous year’s lot when the new crop is ready. It’s a fun project.

Saffron is the dried stigma of crocus flowers that grow from a “corm”, similar to a bulb. Unlike the spring-flowering crocus that most green fingers are familiar with, the hardy saffron-producing crocus blooms more in the fall.

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“It’s ideal to plant them when they’re dormant in late summer,” says Leven. “They grow when temperatures start to cool; it wakes them up.

Once the purple flowers bloom, kicking off the 2-3 week production season, Leven finds herself picking hundreds, if not thousands, of flowers each day. The next step is to separate the stigma from the flower by hand.

“This is one of the main reasons why saffron is so expensive,” he describes. “There is no machine to harvest it mechanically. It takes 150 to 175 flowers to produce a single gram of dried saffron. I had over 200 grams in my best year.

While Leven picks all the flowers himself, his mother and a few friends often step in to help separate the stigma.

Leven planted and harvested his first crop of saffron in the fall of 2017. As the bulbs mature and produce offshoots called “daughters,” his production volume has increased each year. He grows his crocus in two tall tunnels of about 3,000 square feet of space each.

Traditionally produced in Iran, India, Morocco, Spain and the Middle East, interest in saffron as a specialty crop is growing in New England thanks to UVM’s research and annual workshops.

“It gives farmers something that can supplement their income in the shoulder season after harvesting other vegetables, and it only takes a few intense weeks of hands-on work,” says Leven.

Because harvesting and processing it is so labor intensive, saffron is often called the most expensive spice in the world. Selling between $25 and $100 per gram, North American saffron can be more expensive to purchase than its imported counterparts, but buying local offers the advantage of knowing the source. And, a little goes a long way.

“You’re only using a few threads at a time,” says Leven. “Because it comes from a flower, it adds an earthy, floral aroma to rice, chicken, fish and bread recipes, as well as a beautiful golden color. It’s hard to compare the flavor to anything else.

Leven recommends storing saffron in an airtight container away from heat and light, and using it in a few years for best quality.

Some research indicates that saffron may provide health and nutritional benefits due to its high content of antioxidants, calcium, potassium, and iron. Therefore, the herbal supplement market may hold promise for additional opportunities for saffron cultivation and applications in the future.

Denise W. Whigham