Growing Saffron as a Crop on a Lifestyle Block

May 12, 2014 Niki Morrell

Of all the projects, animals and sustainable philosophies that we’ve got going on at our farm, nothing piques people’s interest as much as our saffron growing.

There’s a mystique about the world’s most expensive spice, even if it is just a collection of dried stigmas from a little autumn-flowering crocus.

Everything about saffron seems exotic – its history, vibrant colour, honey-like aroma and distinctive taste.

For centuries, it has featured large in the traditional medicine and cuisines of the Middle East, North Africa and India. Like cardamom, it can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, making it a very versatile condiment.

We’re just winding up our third saffron harvest. While I’d love to say it’s been a brilliant success, it’s actually been a bit woeful.

The saffron crocus does best in the hot, dry summers of a Mediterranean-type climate.

Here in the Nelson Lakes, it rained from September through to mid-February and the corms didn’t get the nice, long baking they needed.

Ah well. That’s farming for ya.

Pros and cons

In some respects, saffron as a crop is ideally suited for a lifestyle block:

  • It doesn’t take up much room (1,000 corms only need 20m2 growing space)
  • If you give it excellent drainage and plenty of full sun, the saffron plant — Crocus sativus – is low maintenance, hardy and almost embarrassingly easy to grow
  • The corms replicate themselves, increasing your stock exponentially
  • Harvest is only three months after planting
  • If you elect to grow on contract, you have the security of a guaranteed market without having to do the sales work yourself

However, there’s a downside:

  • Harvesting and processing is very labour intensive
  • Drying the saffron to the correct degree can be tricky and will determine how much it’s worth
  • The spice might be valued at $10,000 a kilo but to get that yield, you’d need to pick and process between 70,000 and 200,000 flowers!
  • As with any crop, you’re totally at the mercy of the weather

The bottom line is that it’s impossible to get rich from growing saffron on the tiny scale that we do.

At best, we’ll eventually re-coup our initial investment and make a few extra dollars from selling some corms.

But there are other benefits — we’ll feast like royalty with food seasoned by our glamorous crop, and our farm will continue to feel just that tiny bit more exotic as a result.

About the Author

Niki Morrell is a writer who is learning how to farm 25 hectares of marginal land and beech forest in the Nelson Lakes area. With no background or prior experience in farming, she spends much of her time alternating between elation and despair. She says, however, that she wouldn’t have it any other way.

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