December 8, 2017

Mellow yellow: Can saffron make it as a Vermont cash crop?

Blossoms of saffron, which is being studied at the University of Vermont and may one day be a lucrative cash crop for Vermont. PHOTOS BY IAN THOMAS JANSEN -LONNQUIST

After years of climbing the corporate ladder, Steve Leach finally decided to give up the shirt and tie and find his bliss growing saffron.

It started in February, when Leach tuned into a broadcast on saffron cultivation through the University of Vermont in Burlington.

“I’ve been working in the corporate world all of my professional career, but have always had an interest in starting my own business,” said Leach, a new farm owner at Red Thread Farmstead in Swanton.

“When you get to start a business from scratch at the age of 40, you have a different perspective on what that business should entail,” he said.

Margaret Skinner, entomologist and research professor, and Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a post-doctoral student, in a greenhouse at UVM's Entomology Research Lab.

Margaret Skinner, entomologist and research professor, and Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a post-doctoral student, in a greenhouse at UVM’s Entomology Research Lab.

Leach said he wanted the ability to work from home with flexible hours, and to include his family in aspects of the business. Atypical for farm operations, he also wanted to work more in the winter and less in the summer.

“The more I read about crocus sativus (saffron), the more interested I became,” Leach said. “Since saffron is a fall crop, coupled with the fact that I live on two square, sunny acres, it seemed like a good starting point for a business.”

In fact, researchers at UVM are just mad about saffron, and the prospects of creating new ways to grow this ancient spice in Vermont’s cold weather climate.

“The market (for saffron cultivation in Vermont) is limited. Wouldn’t it be great to come up with another crop that could be integrated into the system, and support the economy?” said Margaret Skinner, research scientist at the University of Vermont Entomology Research Laboratory’s Saffron Center in Burlington.

The lab recently received a $30,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to develop techniques for field production of saffron in Vermont. The Specialty Crop Block Grant is part of a $254,000 total package to benefit the state’s speciality crop growers.

“Vermont’s speciality crop grants provide critical industry support for growing viable businesses, and also fund research to help producers overcome persistent challenges,” said Ag Secretary Anson Tebbetts. “We are thankful for our congressional delegation’s continued commitment to the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which works to strengthen Vermont’s agricultural economy and maintain our landscape.”

The two-year saffron research program at UVM will look at growers in the Green Mountain State that have had the best track record for saffron cultivation.

Saffron is a pricey seasoning that costs about $19 per gram, according to an informal survey of Burlington-area retailers. One acre is capable of yielding $100,000 in saffron, Skinner said, one reason why Vermont farmers are so excited about growing it.

That excitement was recently harnessed at a saffron workshop at UVM that drew more than 50 people from diverse agricultural backgrounds who were interested in starting or expanding saffron production, Skinner said.

Skinner believes there’s a budding opportunity to turn saffron into a lucrative cash crop in Vermont. But first, she and her colleagues want to know more about the soil conditions and growing methods currently in use, and how to make them better.

“Most people have heard of saffron. They know it is really expensive, kind of exotic,” Skinner said. To grow saffron, “you don’t need bailers. You don’t need a tractor. You need to till the soil and keep the rodents out,” she said.

Saffron is a spice derived from the purple flower of crocus sativus, whose crimson stigmas and styles, called threads, are harvested and used as a seasoning and food color.

The spice, with its honey-like flavor, is also known for its medicinal value in possibly lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Saffron is grown mostly in Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Italy and England, though it is not readily available in markets.

“The crocus grown to produce saffron is not the same crocus that we typically see in yards (and) gardens in the U.S.,” said Cheryl Deem, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association. “That crocus typically blooms in the spring. In most areas of the world where this particular crocus to produce saffron grows, it is a fall crop — October to November — with a very short harvest period.”

Deem said there “wasn’t a good sense” of whether it would be possible to grow in Vermont, where it’s “generally colder than the areas where it typically grows, although it does grow in parts of the world that have cold winters.”

“The question was whether it was growing outdoors or in a greenhouse. But there was a general feeling that it would be possible to grow (in Vermont),” Deem said.

Historically, saffron has been considered a “labor intensive” crop. Some growers, however, have had good results with saffron grown in milk crates sheltered in climate-controlled hoop houses, Skinner said.

The saffron “corms,” or bulbs, grow best in full sunlight and in well-drained, loamy soil and warmer temperatures. Vermont’s cooler climate poses more of a challenge than other areas, she said.

Sarah Salatino, an Essex Junction horticulturist, began growing saffron this year to supplement her perennial plant production nursery. Full Circle Gardens was selected by the UVM Saffron project as a test site for outdoor growing.

She planted 300 corms in a raised bed outside in garden soil augmented with compost. Inside a greenhouse, she planted 288 corms in crates in the same soil as outside. She’s hoping saffron production will be a good way to extend the crop season and income. The holiday plant market is over-saturated in the area, she said.

“This first year the only challenge was the lack of saffron flower production as only 48 percent of the outside corms bloomed and only 52 percent of the inside corms bloomed. Each area produced less than a gram of saffron strands,” Salatino wrote in an email. “Other than that, everything else went well.”

She hasn’t produced enough for market yet. Figuring out how to quickly and efficiently separate the saffron floral parts was a steep learning curve but, thanks to the fragrance, very pleasant, she said.

“I think Vermont would be a great place to grow saffron. With our ‘localvore’ culture and the thriving and increasing food and spirits industry here, saffron has a place,” she said.

Skinner admits UVM researchers haven’t yet come up with an optimal method for saffron cultivation in Vermont. This is what they hope to achieve through their field studies.

“There are so many questions that people ask us all the time that we’d love to get answers to. (Saffron) obviously grows in a large range of soil conditions. What (research) shows is saffron is quite a versatile plant,” she said.

Deem said the biggest issue for budding Vermont growers of saffron is going to be labor costs.

“The issue for the industry then, is whether the quality and desire for U.S.-grown saffron would be significant enough to justify the higher cost,” Deem said.

Skinner agrees that the allure of saffron cultivation in Vermont is partly “dollar signs.” But there’s more to the growing interest than money.

Through the UVM workshop, saffron growers showed they can be innovative in Vermont’s traditional ag economy and “in the greatest ways. And they are making their own decisions.”

“If they wait for the science to catch up to their needs, they’re going to be waiting a long time, partly because of the funding. But the economic benefit is yet to be seen,” Skinner said.

While researching saffron, Leach, at Red Thread Farmstead, also learned about another high-value crop that can be grown in the winter indoors — microgreens.

“That’s when I decided I’d start building infrastructure to farm both microgreens and saffron,” he said. “Microgreens is a crop I could immediately experiment with while I waited for my order of crocuses from Roco Saffron (Netherlands) to arrive in late August.”

Leach said he built a 20-by-96-foot greenhouse to start, and planted 10,000 crocuses in small 50-cell containers for the month of September.

He said it was a big challenge assembling the greenhouse and building other infrastructure on his own.

“The crocuses have just finished blooming for the year. I was only able to harvest about 20 grams of saffron, which was below my target of 100 grams for season one,” Leach said.

Since then, Leach has teamed up with a reputable supplier of pure Persian-grown, lab-tested category-1 (Super Negin) saffron.

“Saffron is a crop that takes about four (to) five years to realize a return on investment from a growing standpoint. I should be able to turn a profit quicker now that I also source high-quality saffron,” he said.

Is saffron a crop Leach sees farmers interested in? Probably not, he said.

“It’s just too labor intensive to harvest and requires protection in the dead of winter, which can be a big up-front expense for farmers. Saffron also requires professional packaging, which adds cost and design time. Since I’m already invested, I’ll continue to grow saffron, but at a smaller scale than I originally envisioned,” Leach said.

 

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