What information can you give me on growing saffron?

N.K.IndianaAnswer: Thank you for requesting information from ATTRA on growing saffron.In my saffron file, I have notes on a follow-up report by phone from a Texas farmer who, in the mid 1990s, had been very excited about growing saffron. He had been offered the chance to buy some saffron corms from a well-known Texas herbalist and had requested the ATTRA letter on history, production, and economics of this crop. Despite our warnings on potentially negative economic returns, he had gone ahead with the project and planted his bulbs in two halves of a 55-gal. plastic drum.The farmer reported difficulties in keeping the beds at the right moisture level, and said he would, if he had it to do over, grow the corms in a raised bed framed by timbers or cement block where there would be more “interaction” with the outside. He said that since water tended to run right down the sides of the drums without saturating the interior, his plants dried out. He also had problems maintaining correct fertility levels. He hadn’t realized that precise watering and fertilization were so critical for success.He eventually harvested some of the spice for home use before losing interest in the project. He did not remember how many blooms per corm he got, as they bloomed at different times. His final assessment? “It’s the type of crop where people get real excited when they first hear about it, but when they run into the problems of harvesting and marketing it, they sort of cool off.” Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus L.) is a fall-blooming plant. It should not, however, be confused with “autumn crocus,” or “meadow saffron” (Colchicum spp.), which appears on lists of poisonous plants.Most saffron spice is currently imported from countries such as Iran and India (Kashmir), although some still comes from Spain, Italy, and Greece. Azerbaijan and Morocco are significant producers, and the crop has been suggested as a substitute for heroin poppy fields in Afghanistan. Organic and “boutique” crops are grown in New Zealand, The Netherlands, France, Switzerland, England, and the U.S. (Pennsylvania Dutch saffron). Almost 90% of world production in 2007 came from Iran.(1)Extensive field trials on growing saffron as a crop in the Upper Midwest were conducted in 1997 by Daniel Smoley, a retired engineer for a major U.S. company. Mr. Smoley invested considerable personal resources in his experimental plots. Referenced below are reports of his research findings published in The Business of Herbs.Saffron is extremely labor intensive?because the life of the flowers is less than a day and they bloom over a period of time, not all at once. Stigmas must be expertly removed in a short time from large quantities of freshly harvested flowers. The process has not been able to be mechanized. The crop requires an abundance of skilled, extremely low-cost or free (family) labor at certain times of the year. Production has somewhat declined in recent years in former traditional saffron-growing areas in the Mediterranean because young people have moved to cities in search of better pay, easier jobs, and more personal freedom. Countries with high labor costs and abundant job opportunities have not proved to be a good fit for large-scale saffron production.Sources of cormsWhite Flower Farmwww.whiteflowerfarm.comNichols Garden Nurserywww.nicholsgardennursery.comDave’s garden lists 4 additional current sources of corms.www.davesgarden.comDaniel Smoley imported his bulbs from Holland through the International Bulb Co. Inc.(2), an Associate Member of the Massachusetts Flower Growers’ Association. This is a strictly wholesale company, requiring a $150 minimum order in the late 1990s (may be higher now). Different strains of saffron are characteristic of commercial production in various countries, but the best strains may be difficult to procure. Many saffron-growing countries do not export corms.In addition to Mr. Smoley’s report, listed below is a more recent report with information on cultivation, fertilizing, weed control, pests/diseases, flowering, harvesting, drying, and yields (typically less than one pound of spice per acre).References:1)McGimpsey, J.A., and M.H. Douglas. 1997. Evaluation of saffron production in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Crop and Horticultural Science (abstract: A.R. Wallace). 2) International Bulb Company, Inc. P.O. Box 545 5 Wortendyke Ave. Montvale, NJ 07645 201-573-0363 201-573-8885 interbulb@aol.comResources: Rangahau, Mana Kai. 2003. Growing saffron?the world’s most expensive spice. Crop & Food. New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research, Ltd. Research Broadsheet No. 20. August. 4 p.Smoley, Daniel J. 2001. Saffron Crocus as a Crop. Small Farm Today. Part 1. March/April. p. 54?59. Part 2. May/June. p. 66?67.