- Oliver Parini
- Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani
On a recent morning, milk crates filled with saffron crocuses blanket the floor of a St. Albans hoop house, their purple petals gaping skyward like baby birds clamoring to be fed. Though these bright violet flowers are stunning to behold, it's the wispy crimson threads, aka stigmas, at the center of each Crocus sativus bloom that conceal their inner beauty.
Saffron, grown for centuries for its aromatic, culinary and healing properties, is literally more valuable than gold; made from the crocuses' stigmas, the spice can fetch as much as $5,000 per pound. Recent medical research suggests that saffron's therapeutic and medicinal applications may include lowering blood cholesterol levels, preventing convulsions, fighting cancer and combating depression.
To that last point, saffron could someday help mitigate the midwinter blues of Vermont's farmers in more ways than one. Over the past year, researchers in the University of Vermont Department of Plant and Soil Science have concluded that high-quality saffron can be grown in Vermont even during cold months, when farmers lack options for lucrative cash crops.
It took an agricultural researcher from the world's largest saffron-producing region — northeastern Iran — to recognize the spice crop's potential in Vermont. Three years ago, Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani was visiting his wife, Agrin Davari, who's an entomological researcher at UVM. During his visit, Ghalehgolabbehbahani, who completed his doctoral thesis in Iran on an unrelated subject and is now a postdoctoral researcher at UVM, asked research professor Margaret Skinner a simple question: "Why doesn't anyone grow saffron in Vermont?"
As Skinner recalls, her answer seemed like a no-brainer at the time: "Because it's too darned cold!" she told him.
Indeed, Khorasan, the Iranian province that produces 90 percent of the world's saffron, couldn't be more different from the Green Mountain State. It has a semiarid climate, and the temperature rarely drops as low as it does in Vermont.
But Ghalehgolabbehbahani suspected the flower could still survive here. He knew that the saffron crocus is a hearty plant — cold-resistant down to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit — and relatively easy to cultivate. Even in Iran, it's harvested in the fall and winter.
"When you see the saffron in the snow, it's beautiful," Ghalehgolabbehbahani says. "It's a special crop for me."
So he set out to determine if saffron could thrive indoors in Vermont's unheated hoop houses, sometimes called "high tunnels." As Skinner explains, local growers use these structures to extend Vermont's short growing season. Typically, they'll plant winter greens there in the fall, harvest them through December or January, and then start their next big cash crop — tomatoes — in late winter to early spring.
Given this schedule, Skinner likens saffron's potential to that of maple syrup. "The reason maple syrup succeeds in Vermont," she says, "is because it's produced at a time of year when the farmers have nothing else to do."
Although the United States is the world's largest consumer of saffron — it imported 25 tons of the spice in 2013 — saffron bulbs, or corms, aren't readily available in this country. Ghalehgolabbehbahani and Skinner had to scout around for theirs, finally purchasing some from a Mennonite woman in Lancaster County, Pa.
- Oliver Parini
Beginning in the summer of 2015, Ghalehgolabbehbahani and Skinner took a low-tech approach to their saffron experiment: They planted some saffron corms in milk crates and others in raised beds to see which method worked better. One benefit of the milk crates, Skinner explains, is that, as the weather warms in early spring, the saffron plants can be moved outdoors to make room in the high tunnel for new tomato plants. The goal, she says, is not to displace existing winter crops but to supplement them.
Ghalehgolabbehbahani and Skinner quickly discovered another benefit of using milk crates: Rodents such as moles and voles, which aren't a problem in Iran, abound in Vermont and decimated the corms in the raised beds. However, the rodents couldn't penetrate the weed cloth used to keep soil inside the milk crates. The crocuses grown in crates also had higher yields than those planted in the ground.
Once the saffron was harvested and dehydrated, Ghalehgolabbehbahani says, the UVM researchers wanted to determine whether the saffron grown in Vermont would be as high quality as that raised in Iran, Spain, Morocco and elsewhere. Because the spice is desired for its flavor and aromatic properties as well as for its therapeutic uses, they needed to know whether the active compounds in their plants were up to snuff.
To find out, they sent samples to Charles Cantrell, a research chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who works at the University of Mississippi. As Cantrell explains in a phone interview, he analyzed two key components of the Vermont samples and compared them with saffron from Iran, Morocco, France and Spain. Specifically, he looked at safranal, which is responsible for saffron's distinctive fragrance and has anticonvulsant and potential antioxidant properties; and at crocins, which give saffron its distinctive orange and yellow colors and have antidepressant properties.
Cantrell found that UVM's saffron measured up to that grown elsewhere. In fact, he says, Vermont's was as good as any grown in the world.
While Vermont growers could make money by cultivating saffron alone, Ghalehgolabbehbahani sees it as just one component of a larger crop-diversification effort. The crocus could be grown alongside other winter greens such as Swiss chard, spinach and kale, he notes, which don't have nearly the same revenue potential.
How much could saffron spice up farmers' bottom line? Based on their first year's yield, Skinner and Ghalehgolabbehbahani calculated that saffron could net farmers about $4 per square foot. That's higher than tomatoes, which yield about $3.50 per square foot, and greens, which generate $1.81 per square foot. Another potential revenue source, Skinner adds, is selling the corms, which retail for 30 cents to $1 apiece.
Clearly, there's already local demand for this rare commodity. According to UVM researchers, the average retail price of organic saffron in Vermont health food stores is $19 per gram. Based on the yield obtained this year, saffron could generate revenues of $100,000 per acre, greatly surpassing revenues from most other vegetable crops grown in high tunnels.
Last January, Skinner gave a presentation on the team's preliminary findings to a group of growers and ag-extension staffers. As a result, she was invited to speak at the Northeast Greenhouse Conference and Expo last month in Boxborough, Mass.
"The growers who attended the conference were very interested, and at least 10 of them came up to me after the talk to ask more questions," Skinner reports. "I have received inquiries via email from several growers, as well. There are many questions still to answer, but, given the promising data and the initial interest we have observed from growers, I believe some growers will try it in the coming year."
One Vermonter who's expressed an interest in Vermont-grown saffron is Guido Masé, founder and codirector of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, a nonprofit school and clinic in Montpelier. Masé, who's also the chief herbalist at Urban Moonshine, a Burlington producer of organic bitters and herbal tonics, is particularly excited about saffron's potential for treating people with mild to moderate depression.
As he explains, from 2002 to 2009, the University of Tehran did considerable clinical research on saffron's antidepressant properties. In 2013, Jacksonville University in Florida published a meta-analysis of all such trials. According to Masé, that analysis found "a substantial effect, much stronger than [the] placebo effect, and equally comparable to some [prescription] antidepressant drugs."
Masé, who grew up in Italy and remembers his father using saffron to cook risotto, says he sees the spice as a welcome addition to Vermont's locally grown apothecary.
"Vermont is already known as a medicinal plant and specialty food mecca," he says, "so having some organic saffron from Vermont would be incredible."
Ellen Kahler is executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which coordinates the Vermont Farm to Plate Network. She also sees significant potential in growing saffron locally, in part because of Vermont's existing brand identity.
"If we can successfully grow saffron in Vermont, and the medicinal value and flavor profile can be verified," she says, "then this could be a wonderful new product that enables some farms to diversify their revenue streams."
UVM's Skinner and Ghalehgolabbehbahani both caution that additional research is needed before they advise local growers to jump into saffron farming with both feet. For one thing, it's still not clear how well saffron corms will survive outdoors through Vermont's harshest winters. The last two were unusually mild.
Moreover, the harvesting of saffron is still extremely time- and labor-intensive, as each flower produces only a minute quantity of saffron spice. According to Ghalehgolabbehbahani, it takes 100 to 150 flowers to produce just one gram of the final product. In Iran, most of that painstaking work is still done by hand. Otherwise, he says, "It's an easy crop to grow."
And, with Americans consuming 25 tons of saffron annually, Ghalehgolabbehbahani adds, "That's huge!"