Could the world’s most expensive spice help farmers in Vermont?

The World
Saffron threads are very delicate and must be picked by hand.

The snow-covered plains of Vermont are one of the last places you'd think saffron would grow.

Think about it: The world's biggest crops of the high-priced spice grow in Iran, Spain and Italy. Not places you'd automatically associate with heavy snowfall and bone-shattering cold weather, right?

But Margaret Skinner, a researcher professor at the University of Vermont, wants to bring saffron to the farmlands here.

Margaret Skinner and Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani stand next to one of their saffron pilot patches in Burlington, Vermont.
Margaret Skinner and Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani stand next to one of their saffron pilot patches in Burlington, Vermont.Shirin Jaafari

It all started two years ago when Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani was finishing up his PhD studies in Mashhad, a city in northeast Iran. That's a region where about 90 percent of the world's saffron comes from.

Ghalehgolabbehbahani's wife had been accepted to the University of Vermont and he went to the state to visit her. That's where he met Skinner.

"When I came here, I could find that here is really cold and I know that saffron has good resistance to cold weather, so I suggested saffron to Margaret," recalls Ghalehgolabbehbahani. "First Margaret was like ‘uh … saffron?' And after two or three weeks … when we were working on that, Margaret told me ‘oh, saffron, let’s do that!’”

Ghalehgolabbehbahani's question led to a research project. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vermont. Together with Skinner, they started looking into whether it would be possible to grow saffron in Vermont.

"When we started back in 2015 we had no idea … would they grow? Would we get any flowers at all? Would it be too hot? Would it be too cold?" recalls Skinner.

First they needed saffron corms, which look like bulbs. Think Tulip or Hyacinth bulbs but smaller. They found out that a local flower company imports them from the Netherlands. They also got some from an elderly lady in Pennsylvania.

In fact, saffron has been grown in the US for years.

"It was very popular in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s," explains Susan Liechty, who previously headed the Herb Society of America and currently serves on its board.

"It was brought over by many many immigrants from Spain and France and Italy and Germany," she says, "and a lot of them, especially the Germans — which is the Amish and the Mennonite that settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — started growing it as a crop."

Liechty says these were small, family farms. Over time, as older Mennonites and Amish farmers passed away, the number of saffron farms shrank. "At one point I was told that there was close to 250 different farms. Now they’re down to about under 50."

Saffron flowers are left to dry in the University of Vermont lab.
Saffron flowers are left to dry in the University of Vermont lab.Shirin Jaafari

Today, small amounts of saffron are grown in a few parts of the US. Some is grown in California, for example, because it's home to a large Iranian community and saffron is used in Persian cooking.

But what's produced in the States is dwarfed by what the country imports.

Skinner sees an opportunity here for the farmers in Vermont.

They planted the saffron corms in a high tunnel, which is similar to a greenhouse but its bottom sides are open and it's not heated.

And what they found took them by surprise. "We got higher yields of saffron, in terms of the weight of saffron, than what’s reported in field production in Spain or Iran," Skinner says.

Armed with her new results, Skinner asked around to see whether farmers would be interested in planting saffron as a side crop. Julie Rubaud, owner of Red Wagon Plants, agreed to give it a try.

Rubaud has been growing herbs and ornamental plants in Hinesburg, Vermont for 22 years. She has nine greenhouses, most of which remain empty during winter.

"We’ve been working with Margaret’s department, the entomology department, for years," she says, "because they help us understand how to control insects organically."

Initially, though, she was skeptical about saffron because picking it involves a lot of labor. Liechty explains the process like this:

"It’s a quick crop. You might have two to three weeks to pick all of it. Once you pick the flowers then you have to separate them. You have to pull all the petals apart and there’s three red […] stigmas inside each flower and that’s the part that you want to pick out and it has to be picked out with your fingertips. Then they have to dry."

Skinner understands that saffron production is labor-intensive. But she argues that it's not much harder than making maple syrup. Plus, she says, it's something farmers can try in small quantities, alongside tomatoes and salad greens.

Next comes questions about marketing. Who's going to buy it? Yes, saffron is expensive, Skinner says. Only a few strands can cost about $20. But flavoring rice and risotto dishes isn't the only use for saffron. It also has medicinal purposes. That's what interests Guido Masé, a clinician at the Burlington Herb Clinic.

"I’d be so excited to use saffron," he says, "there’s really no one in the country who’s extracting saffron for medicinal purposes right now and we work with a lot of these aromatic plants, and to be able to add saffron in there as certified, organic from Vermont I think would be fantastic." Masé says some studies have shown that saffron, for example, helps with depression.

Julie Rubaud and her dog Sandy in one of her nine greenhouses in Hinesburg, Vermont. Rubaud will be trying out saffron as part of her herb production.
Julie Rubaud and her dog Sandy in one of her nine greenhouses in Hinesburg, Vermont. Rubaud will be trying out saffron as part of her herb production.Shirin Jaafari

Skinner points to one more way that saffron has been put to use over the centuries: Dyeing fabrics. She says one grower from the Amish-Mennonite community managed to sell some of it to Buddhist monks in Boston.

"Traditionally some monks use saffron to dye their robs and they really didn’t want to buy saffron from overseas because of concerns about the politics … so they really liked buying it locally," she says.

The way the Chuck Ross sees it — he's the secretary of the Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets — we could see Vermont-grown saffron within the next 12 months.

Meanwhile Skinner and Ghalehgolabbehbahani have only started. They want to raise money to do more research. They want to find out what kinds of diseases saffron would have to fight in Vermont, and the ways to maximize production. And a whole lot more.

For now, saffron has created a buzz here. And who knows? Maybe the spice that some consider exotic and mysterious could bring in much-needed income for farmers in the Green Mountain State. Skinner certainly hopes so.

"I really value what farmers bring to this state," she says. "I grew up in this state and I love what it stands for and part of that is our small family farms and so I want to do what I can to sustain them. And probably the dairy industry is not going to sustain them but something like saffron could."

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