Vermont is famous around the globe for its maple syrup, cheese and craft beer. Soon, the state could add saffron to that list.
Saffron? In Vermont?
University of Vermont scientists think so. Margaret Skinner, research professor of plant and soil science, and Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a visiting doctoral candidate from Iran, started an experiment last summer growing almost 24,000 of the crocus plants that produce saffron, the world’s highest-valued spice, known for its unique flavor and fiery-red hue.
Housed in a St. Albans high tunnel -- a greenhouse-like domed structure that typically uses no heat or electricity -- the plants have thrived, even through the Vermont winter. In the fall, they delivered almost four times as much saffron per square meter as the average yield in Iran, the largest saffron-producing country, and more than twice that of the next-largest producer, Spain, according to Ghalehgolabbehbahani.
“We did it,” Skinner says. “We got higher yields than are reported in saffron-growing areas. So we’ve proven that, yes, it can be done.”
Based on the current retail price of about $19 per gram, the researchers estimate that saffron could generate revenue of about $100,000 per acre -- which would make it Vermont’s most lucrative greenhouse-grown crop, she says. By comparison, maple syrup -- one of Vermont’s most profitable products -- brings in about $1,320 per acre of trees, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
“There’s obviously high demand on a national level for saffron,” says Kristina Sweet, senior agriculture development coordinator for the state Agency of Agriculture. “I can see it working.”
Saffron is the fragile dried threads -- the stigma, or female part -- from inside the flower of the crocus sativus plant. It is prized by cooks for its honey-like flavor and for its medicinal properties. Studies have shown it is an effective treatment for some eye diseases, depression and possibly cancer.
The crocus corms, like small bulbs, sprout foliage that resembles tall green grass, then flower. Harvest requires precise selection of each stigma by hand -- intensive labor that drives the spice’s high price.
Skinner, an entomologist, helps run the UVM Entomology Research Laboratory and specializes in integrated pest management and biological control to replace environmentally damaging treatments. Earlier this month, she flew to Lebanon and Egypt to help identify “natural enemies” for farmers there to use instead of pesticides.
So, why would a bug expert dabble in cultivating an exotic herb?
As Skinner explains it, her work focuses on ways to improve the livelihoods of farmers. “Our mission is to conduct research to answer practical problems that growers face, whether it’s in Vermont, whether it’s in the region, whether it’s nationally or internationally.”
A primary problem for farmers, particularly in Vermont, is the short growing season. Many rely on greenhouses or high tunnels – also called hoop houses, which are easier and cheaper to construct -- to get a jump start on crops such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants before temperatures allow them to plant outside.
“From a revenue standpoint we all know that growers make the most money on crops when they’re growing them outside of the regular growing season,” Skinner says, explaining that prices for the vegetables drop when supplies are plentiful. “Once you and I have fresh tomatoes in our backyard, are we going to buy tomatoes from the farm? Heck no!”
That leaves a gap during the late summer and fall months, when growers could rotate another crop into their mix and make use of the tunnel. Diversification is key to success for small operators, Skinner says.
“Very few only do one thing, like tomatoes,” she says. “Most of them grow vegetables, they grow pumpkins, they make maple syrup maybe. They have some animals. They do a little bit of everything, so there’s always some source of income.”
Saffron can fill the gap, Skinner reasons. Planted in August, the crocus blooms from October to November and, once the summer crops are gone, the high tunnel can protect the flowers from wind and rain.
While dormant through winter and spring, green foliage remains for photosynthesis, drawing nutrients into the corm so it can divide into “babies.” In March or April, the dormant crocus can move outside to make room for the crucial summer crops.
To smooth that swap, Skinner and Ghalehgolabbehbahani tested half of their crocus plants in easily movable milk crates, with the other half in raised garden beds, and compared the results for each group. The crated plants produced “significantly higher” yield than those in the beds, according to the researchers.
Skinner has told growers that they could grow saffron in crates and move it around. “Their little eyes turn into dollar signs,” she says.
The UVM project started when Ghalehgolabbehbahani came to visit his wife, a doctoral student at the entomology lab, around Thanksgiving 2014. One day, he asked Skinner, “Why don’t you grow saffron in Vermont?”
She was skeptical. She once tried to grow her own saffron. “I bought some corms online, put them in the ground and never saw ’em again,” she laughs. “That’s probably for several reasons, one because of rodents eating them. Also because it probably was a cold winter and too cold for them.”
At home in Iran, which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s saffron, Ghalehgolabbehbahani is doing his doctoral thesis on crop species diversity and the relationships of plants to their environment. He found that Vermont winter temperatures fall in the same range as those in Iran, particularly with the high tunnel protecting against extreme chill. On a recent spring day in the 40s outside, the sun filtering through the clear tarp dome warmed the St. Albans shelter to 89 degrees.
Saffron isn’t entirely foreign to the United States. Pennsylvania German families have grown it for centuries, mostly for personal and community use, not commercial production.
To launch the Vermont project, Skinner spent time with Ruth Martin, a 74-year-old Pennsylvania saffron guru, whose enthusiasm for the plants proved infectious. Martin sold the UVM team some high-quality corms for 30 cents a piece -- about a third of the going rate for the plants.
The researchers have had less luck finding funding sources. Most entities wanted more data before giving grants, but the project wouldn’t generate data until it got off the ground, Skinner says.
Then, someone pointed them to Bob Roberts, a retired welding instructor who lives on St. Albans Bay and has a keen interest in organic land use and cleanup of Lake Champlain contamination. When he heard about the potential cancer-fighting benefits of saffron, he signed on with his support.
“For cancer? Hell, yeah,” he says, citing several family members who have died from various forms of the disease.
Roberts and a neighbor who partners with him on multiple business ventures put up $74,000 to pay for the plants and a portion of Ghalehgolabbehbahani’s salary. The high tunnel sits in a field about 100 yards from his house on the bay.
“We’re going to get big profits from the saffron,” Roberts says. “There’s no question about that.”
First, though, the researchers need to test the quality of their saffron’s chemical components, which are crucial to its flavor and medicinal value. They also are pursuing a grant to develop a natural fungicide from the saponins in the corms. And they want a second year of data to demonstrate the same big yield numbers.
But they aren’t planning to sell the saffron for profit.
“We don’t want to go into the business,” Skinner says. “We want growers to do it.”