As an agricultural crop, saffron requires a lot of effort for a small tasty reward. But for those who grow and produce the fragrant flower herb, it is worth it.
While thinking about using some of the land he owned, lawyer and musician Brian Leven learned about growing saffron as an afterthought after reading viability studies conducted by the North American Center for Saffron Research and Development 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, and maintains a small vegetable garden for the private use of his family.
“I am 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 is not much. I tend to sell the previous year’s batch when the new crop is ready. It’s a fun project.”
Saffron is the dried stigma of crocus flowers that grow from a “tuber”, similar to a bulb. Unlike the spring-blooming crocus most green thumbs know, the hardy saffron-producing crocus blooms in the fall.
“It’s ideal to plant them when they’re dormant in late summer,” explains Leven. “They grow when the temperature gets colder; it wakes them up.”
Once the purple flowers bloom and the 2 to 3 week production season begins, Leven picks hundreds and sometimes thousands of blooms every day. The next step is to separate the stigma from the blossom by hand.
“That’s one of the main reasons saffron is so expensive,” he describes. “There is no machine to harvest it mechanically. It takes 150 to 175 flowers to produce just one dried gram of saffron. I’ve had over 200 grams in my best year.”
While Leven picks all the flowers himself, his mother and a few friends often help break the stigma.
Leven planted and harvested its first saffron crop in the fall of 2017. As the tubers mature and produce offshoots called “daughters”, his production volume has increased each year. He grows his crocus in two tall tunnels, each containing about 3,000 square feet of space.
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 provides farmers with something that can supplement their income during the shoulder season after other vegetables have been harvested, and it only requires a few intensive weeks of hands-on work,” Leven says.
Because it is so labor-intensive to harvest and process, saffron is often referred to as the most expensive spice in the world. Sell for $25 to $100 per gram, North American saffron can be more expensive to buy than its imported counterparts, but buying locally offers the advantage of knowing the source. And a little goes a long way.
“You only use 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, along with a beautiful golden color. It’s hard to compare the taste to anything else.”
Leven recommends storing saffron in an airtight container away from heat and light and using it within a few years for best quality.
Some studies indicate 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 the promise of additional opportunities for saffron cultivation and applications in the future.