Why the Most Expensive Spice in the World Is Now Growing in Hundreds of Small American Farms
On a brisk morning in late October, wisps of snow and brittle leaves scuttle across the hillside at Calabash Gardens in Wells River, Vermont. In the semi-frozen field, in an acre of cultivated ground surrounded by a tall deer fence, delicate purple Crocus sativus blossoms quiver in the stark landscape like the wings of exotic moths. Bend down and you can see three bright red stigma—the female parts of a flower—protruding from the center of each small, goblet-shaped bloom. This ephemeral bit of botany is saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.
Bundled against the cold, Claudel "Zaka" Chery and Jette Mandl-Abramson walk the field, plucking the blossoms into baskets and stopping now and then to blow on their bare hands. The flowers are the first signs of life from 180,000 corms, the enlarged stems, that lay dormant under the soil all summer. The harvest from the fall-blooming saffron crocus will last until the temperature stays below freezing. Chery is all too aware that in this cold hollow, harvest time could last a month, or just until tomorrow. Later, at the kitchen table, pulling apart the blossoms to remove the saffron threads, Chery counts each one—361 that day—which he records in a little notebook.
When Chery left Haiti after the devastation of the earthquake in 2010, he never imagined he would end up farming in Vermont. Led there by grief, to find solace with the family of a dear friend who had died, he didn't even have a car, let alone land. He didn't intend to stay. Then he met Mandl-Abramson, an herbalist and artist, with bird tattoos flying off each shoulder, dreaming of her own farm. In 2017, about a year after the couple met, Mandl-Abramson stumbled across a University of Vermont article about growing saffron. Something clicked. "Saffron was how I finally persuaded Zaka to farm with me," says Mandl-Abramson. "Saffron was difficult and experimental, and we had the chance to be leaders. Hardly anyone was doing it."
The Golden Ticket
In the last five years, hundreds of small farms across the U.S. have begun growing saffron with the hope of tapping a highly lucrative niche in the artisanal spice market. Pound-for-pound on par with gold, high-end saffron sells for as much as $50 a gram. To a farmer, Crocus sativus has a lot going for it beyond the price tag: plant it once and it will come back year after year and multiply on its own; it adapts to extreme environments and poor soils; and its harvest comes when other crops no longer need attention. On the flip side, nearly every step of growing and processing saffron must be done by hand. As with any gold rush, success with the gold spice requires a huge dollop of perseverance—maybe even obsession—as these farmers are finding out.
Saffron's value, and perhaps a large part of its allure to the human imagination for millennia (one of the oldest depictions of saffron is a 3,000-year-old fresco at the Palace of Minos at Knossos in Crete), comes from its elusive nature. Each blossom lasts 3 to 4 days and produces three tiny scarlet stigmas, which must be separated from the other flower parts and then dried within 24 hours of picking; it takes about 500 of these aromatic threads to produce a single gram. You can do a full day's work and hold in your palm a harvest weighing less than a hummingbird.
Like most spices, saffron has its cultural niche: in Persia and Arabia, it appears in everything from cocktails to ice cream, even beauty cream and fabric dye. In Mediterranean cuisine, saffron has lent its distinctive woodsy note to bouillabaisse since Roman times, and in India—where it has also long been part of the spice trade—some cooks add it to recipes like biryani, turning layers of rice cooked with spices, vegetables and meat a sunny yellow. Used as much for the rich golden color as the sweet earthy aroma it gives the food, its taste is more atmospheric than assertive, like freshly mown hay drying in the sun with bitter herbs and flowers.
Native to the Middle East, saffron is typically grown in hot, dry climates and it is harvested for export only in places where hand labor is cheaply available. Around 90% of the world's saffron is grown in Iran. Spain, Afghanistan and India are also exporters. The U.S. imports roughly 75 tons of saffron a year and farming it domestically has been nearly unheard of since Pennsylvania Dutch settlers grew it in the 1700s (a few still do) and sold it to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean.
Rahmatallah Gheshm, a postdoctoral fellow in agroecology at the University of Rhode Island, who studied saffron for two decades in his native Iran before coming to the U.S., sees a big opportunity. "Saffron is endangered," he says. He predicts that in the next 10 years Iran's saffron harvest—some 200 tons— will drop by half. In Khorasan Province, where the majority of saffron is grown, studies show that much of the land is steadily becoming unproductive desert, with higher levels of salinity in the aquifers due to climate change. Because of the high cost of labor, Gheshm doesn't see the U.S. ever coming close to filling such a large gap, but he imagines a time when saffron will be grown widely on small farms and sold locally.
An Idea Blossoms
At nearly an acre, Calabash Gardens is the largest saffron farm in Vermont and probably in the entire United States, according to Margaret Skinner, a research professor and extension entomologist at the University of Vermont. Skinner, who has a voice full of infectious enthusiasm, has been instrumental in helping the majority of American saffron farmers get started in the last five years. She became a leading resource on growing the spice in the U.S. mostly by accident. One day in 2015, Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a UVM postgraduate fellow who grew up in Tehran, asked her why Vermont farmers didn't grow saffron.
"My initial reaction was, 'That's a really crazy idea,'" says Skinner. "I didn't think it would survive the cold." But if it did, she thought, the fall-blooming Crocus sativus could be a high-value crop for vegetable farmers—not requiring a heated greenhouse and hitting at a time of year when an additional revenue stream was welcome. "We envisioned this as a crop to support our small diversified farms," she explains.
The outlay of time and money to plant an acre of saffron can be daunting. The corms themselves, which most farms import from specialized growers in Holland, cost around 20 to 40 cents each, which could run to $30,000 for an acre. The first year's harvest won't impress anyone, but three years after planting, Skinner estimates, 1 acre of Crocus sativus could produce $100,000 of saffron. These are the kind of numbers that UVM's North American Center for Saffron Research and Development has estimated based on their research to date.
When funding is available the Center donates corms and equipment to farmers for saffron trials, researches different growing and drying methods and organizes an annual conference drawing hundreds—"a wild session of all kinds of different people looking for the new gold rush," according to one participant. Most influential of all is the center's SaffronNet—a Listserv with 800 active users, from 25 states and 15 countries, all posting tips and questions on growing saffron.
Sustaining Small Farms
It's 2 a.m., and a single headlamp shines in the dark along the edge of Peace and Plenty's saffron field in Kelseyville, California. Little by little, a dozen points of light converge and dance up and down the rows in the cold November pre-dawn. No one is awake enough to talk; the only sound is the distinctive squeak of crocus blossoms being plucked and put into buckets. Hours later, as the roosters start to crow and the first light cracks the horizon, the harvesters pick up the pace, racing the sun.
At this farm, the delicate saffron flowers push up not through snow but a sun-parched crust of earth in a landscape scarred by drought. Melinda Price and Simon Avery dreamed of farming for years but "didn't think carrots and kale would pay the mortgage." Saffron held promise of something more lucrative on a small scale. They bought their first crocus corms even before they bought land.
To harvest their half-acre requires 14 people working up to 14 hours a day. Young people who are attracted to the madcap adventure of picking saffron as an endurance sport come to camp in the fields for a few weeks. They pick at least 40,000 flowers before the intense sun hits the field and wilts them ("they would turn to wet glop," says Price), then all afternoon in the shade of walnut trees they separate the stigmas from the petals with pollen-stained hands and place the threads into dehydrators. After drying, the saffron is sealed in jars.
Price's voice slows when she talks about cooking simple meals with saffron for her farm crew and the more elaborate menus at her farm-to-table events created by chef Arnon Oren of Anaviv. Guests sit at long tables under the walnut trees and eat a five-course saffron-inspired meal with local wines; menus have included chicken roasted with saffron butter, lamb tagine with saffron rice, and saffron ice-cream with grilled figs. "If you want to highlight saffron as the star, you definitely want to use the locally grown one," says Oren. It has more color and flavor, he says, and "smells so, so earthy and powerful."
Price admits that at least half her customers are unfamiliar with saffron. "They point to the lavender field and ask if that's the saffron," she says. Her mission is to spread enthusiasm. She encourages people to "be adventuresome, to try it in everything." As for the expense—her saffron sells for $75 a gram in a cute jar with a label that reads "Life Is Golden"—she reminds people that a little bit goes a long way. "Three threads of saffron will make a pot of rice," she says.
Creating a Market
Meraki Meadows in the dust-mote town of New Home, Texas, is a two-family operation where all six kids, ages 7 to 16, are on the website staff page with roles like Executive Flower Smeller and Dirt Quality Analyst. Karl McDonald and his in-laws, the Becks, had 15 acres and started researching a crop that could be profitable without much land or rain, and would "give the kids an activity." Saffron kept coming to the top of the list. The name they chose for the farm, Meraki, is a Greek word meaning to put yourself into something with heart and soul.
During the fall of 2020 when the pandemic confined them at home, all 10 family members planted 20,000 corms of saffron on a half-acre and got their first harvest a few months later, truly a family effort. "The kids got up to pick before they went to school, then came home and processed after," McDonald says.
As remote as it is, Meraki Meadows gets few visitors. They sell directly from their website. "Our biggest gap is marketing," McDonald says. Like Calabash Gardens and Peace and Plenty Farm, they will soon be producing too much saffron to sell it all directly to home cooks; they will need partnerships with companies looking to turn it into value-added products, such as saffron-infused soap, candles or honey, something Peace and Plenty has found a strong market for.
For Calabash Gardens in Vermont, that partner is Lemonfair Saffron, a company started in 2017 by Parker Shorey. Shorey thinks of himself as "the pollinator bee" helping Vermont saffron growers reach markets in New York City, where he is based, and beyond. He pays farmers at least 50% of his retail price (currently $56 a gram) for bulk saffron, then takes it through an added drying process by spreading the threads on copper trays over the coals of a maple-wood fire. This fire-drying technique is traditional in colder climates where saffron is grown, and Shorey learned it from growers in Tuscany. Though much trickier than using the sun or a commercial dehydrator as most growers do (the first time Shorey tried it he accidentally tipped several hundred dollars' worth of saffron into the coals), drying saffron over a fire "brings out the radiant color and mild fruity aroma of fresh saffron," he says. He sees saffron following in the footsteps of the craft cider and artisanal cheese that are now mainstays of Vermont's food culture but were rare a decade ago.
Though still a microbusiness, Lemonfair is at an inflection point, he says and will purchase three times as much American saffron from growers this year as it did in 2021. The home-cooking trend triggered by the pandemic seems to be continuing, Shorey says, and he sees locally sourced spices as the next wave of Americans' interest in artisanal and local foods.
Shorey recently checked in on Zaka Chery's crop at Calabash Gardens. "The gauntlet was thrown," Shorey says. "We have to really work on the demand because they are going to have a ton of saffron next year." Well, maybe not a ton, but if the weather cooperates, possibly as much as 6 pounds, which translates to 5,400 half-gram jars of the gold spice.
As a filmmaker by training, Chery isn't daunted by the challenge of telling the story of locally grown saffron to new customers. The farming piece still leaves him nervous. "We're going to be picking half a million flowers," he says. "We won't eat or sleep. It's going to be maddening," Chery adds, with a look that says this is a madness akin to chasing an unrequited love.
Things to Consider When Buying Saffron
Yes, it's pricy, so you want to be sure you're getting what you paid for. Here are some things to consider.
Skip powdered saffron—it loses flavor more quickly, and it's easier for it to be adulterated with fillers.
You may see a quality grade on labels. Some grading systems indicate what part of the flower is included (stigma-only, without any of the style which it attaches to, is the highest grade). Others are based on measures of active ingredients, primarily crocin, which gives the saffron coloring power. Unfortunately there is no universal system (e.g., "Grade 1" used by the International Standard Organization and "Coupe" used in the Spanish system both indicate the highest level of crocin). Ideally, you'll find a harvest date within the last year on the package. Buy it in small amounts to avoid leftovers sitting around losing potency.
It should look like red threads, typically snarled into a jumble. The threads can have variation in color from pure red to a lighter orangy-yellow, which is where the stigma attaches to the style of the flower.
It should smell strongly of dried hay and fall leaves.
Try these sites for American-grown saffron.
Lemonfair Saffron Co; lemonfairsaffron.com
Peace and Plenty Farm; peaceplentyfarm.com
Meraki Meadows; txsaffron.com
Calabash Gardens; calabashgardens.com
Helen Whybrow is a freelance writer and editor-at-large for Orion Magazine.