Saffron - A Golden Opportunity for Diversified Growers in New England

Increasingly, high tunnels (unheated plastic hoop houses) are used to overcome unpredictable climate events. These structures allow growers to extend the growing season, providing conditions in which to grow crops that otherwise would not survive. Early tomatoes and winter greens are commonly grown, but competition among growers for a limited market is high. This led us to consider other lucrative crops. One is SAFFRON, the most expensive spice in the world ($5,000/lb retail). Saffron (stigmas of a fall-blooming crocus) is also known for its medicinal properties as an anti-carcinogen and to combat depression and reduce cholesterol. Over 25 tons of saffron was imported to the US in 2013. Saffron is hardy to USDA zone 5/6, though it is doubtful it would provide high yields if grown outside. In 2015 we conducted the first VT trial, growing saffron in plastic milk crates and raised beds in a high tunnel. Yield surpassed that reported for key saffron-growing areas (1.39 gr/sq. m (VT) compared to 0.6 gr (Spain fields). The retail price of organic saffron in Vermont is $19/gr. Based on our yield, saffron could generate $100,000/acre. We estimate the net revenue per sq. ft from saffron at $4.03, compared to $3.51 for tomatoes, and $1.81 for winter greens.   Saffron produced in these trials was analyzed to compare crocin and saffranal content. We determined that in general the saffron produced in the Vermont high tunnel was comparable to that from Iran, Spain, Pennsylvania and Italy. This project has generated significant interest among growers and the press. Work is continuing to further confirm the suitability of in-crate saffron production, and assess the economic feasibility and markets for saffron.