As an agricultural crop, saffron requires a whole lot of effort for a little tasty reward. But for those who grow and produce the fragrant floral spice, it’s worth it.
As he was considering options for how to use a portion of land he owned, lawyer and musician Brian Leven learned about growing saffron as a side hustle 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 to local markets, along with 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 couple hundred grams isn’t a lot. I tend to sell out of the previous year’s batch when the new harvest 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-blooming crocus most green thumbs are familiar with, the hardy saffron-producing crocus instead flower in the fall.
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“It’s ideal to plant them when they’re dormant in late summer,” Leven explains. “They grow when temperatures start getting colder; it wakes them up.”
Once the purple flowers bloom kicking off the 2- to 3-week production season, Leven finds himself picking hundreds and sometimes thousands of flowers each day. The next step is separating the stigma from the blossom by hand.
“That’s one of the main reasons saffron is so expensive,” he describes. “There’s no machine to mechanically harvest it. It takes 150 to 175 flowers to produce just one dried gram of saffron. I’ve had upwards of 200 grams of in my best year.”
While Leven picks all the flowers himself, his mother and a few friends often pitch in to help with separating the stigma.
Leven planted and harvested his first saffron crop in fall 2017. As the corms mature and produce offshoots called “daughters,” his production volume has increased every year. He grows his crocus in two high tunnels that contain around 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 offers farmers something that can supplement their incomes during the shoulder season after other vegetables have been harvested, and it only requires a few intense weeks of hands-on work,” Leven says.
Because it’s so labor-intensive to harvest and process, saffron is often called the most expensive spice in the world. Selling at $25 to $100 a gram, North American saffron can be pricier to purchase than its imported counterparts, but buying local does offer the advantage of knowing the source. And, a little goes a long way.
“You only use a few threads at a time,” Leven says. “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 flavor to anything else.”
Leven recommends storing saffron in an air-tight container away from heat and light, and using it up within a couple of years for the best quality.
Some research indicates that saffron may offer health and nutritional benefits due to its high antioxidant, calcium, potassium and iron content. Therefore, the herbal supplement market may hold the promise of additional opportunities for saffron farming and applications in the future.