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Growing The World’s Most Expensive Spice
Saffron is commonly grown throughout Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia. However, some North American farmers have started growing saffron as a cash crop.
The world’s most expensive spice has a lot of appeal. Beyond adding a subtle flavor to food, studies have shown that saffron may work for boosting your mood, treating depression, reducing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, and potentially alleviating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Saffron flowers are tiny purple crocuses with three red stigmas in the center, the part that makes the spice. It takes over 170,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron, making it worth well over its weight in gold.
Under ideal conditions, 1 acre of saffron flowers will yield an average of 4 lbs. of the spice, for a total revenue of $40,000. But even so, this subtly sweet spice is challenging to profit from because of the labor and land required.
U.S. farmers have grown saffron on a small scale since the 17th century when the Pennsylvania Dutch first brought over the bulbs. Recently, commercial interest in the spice has renewed, due in part to a viability study in New England from 2017 to 2019. In it, researchers from the University of Rhode Island experimented with different planting densities to determine their effect on pistil dry weight (the valuable part of each stigma).
The results showed that planting density didn’t affect the number of flowers or total yields but that the low-density plots produced larger stigmas. Further research revealed that winter protection made little difference in overall production, despite the flower’s reputation as a warm-weather species.
The hardy plant thrives in sandy to loamy soils and requires good drainage to avoid rot. It can adapt to growing USDA zones 6 through 10, so long as the flowers are grown in direct sunlight. Those below zone 6 will need to dig up the bulbs for winter storage.
The flowers themselves are best harvested in the morning on a dry day approximately 6 to 8 weeks after planting. Wait until the blooms are partially open and gently pick out the stigma with tweezers. The blooms will degrade quickly in direct sunlight, so they must be stored immediately in a shaded area.
It’s possible to use the saffron threads right after picking, but they are most often dried for long-term storage. An open shelf can work, as will a dehydrator.
The plant itself has few insect and disease problems and requires minimal inputs, making it ideal for organic production. And unlike many organic crops, the plant does well in long-term storage.
The pain point for producing this high-value crop is harvesting. There’s no way to gather the blossoms mechanically, making it an extremely labor-intensive process that’s hard to support in the U.S. Growing saffron as a primary crop may not be profitable in most U.S. production systems, but it offers potential for small-scale growers or as part of a mixed farming operation.

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2022 - Volume #46, Issue #2