Saffron. The golden, flavorful spice has been used to season foods for thousands of years, often in rice and chicken dishes, and is largely grown in the Middle East. So what's it doing growing in Vermont?
The answer to that question begins with a visit to St. Albans, along the shores of Lake Champlain. In a field that — on this day — is covered with fresh snow, there's a lone structure that looks like a greenhouse, its plastic roof flapping against the gray sky.
The facility is actually an agriculture research site. And inside, soft purple flowers of the saffron crocus are in full bloom.
Dr. Margaret Skinner is a research professor at the University of Vermont Entomology Research Lab.
“Each flower has six petals. It has three stamens — those are the mustard yellow ones," Skinner explains. "And there are the three stigmas — that is the gold!"
Skinner points to the deep orange-colored stigmas at the center of the flower that will be hand-picked and dried to make the exotic spice.
“The plants, if they were growing outside, they would suffer, and they aren’t suffering because they’re in this protected environment,” Skinner says as she walks among rows of raised flower beds. Some of the plants are even growing in plastic milk crates.
This is Skinner's second year of research growing the saffron crocus in a high tunnel, or what some would call a hoop house. It’s like a greenhouse, but it doesn't have heat.
With the protection of the high tunnel, Skinner thinks the quirks of saffron’s growing and harvesting season could fit in perfectly as a shoulder crop for Vermont farmers.
“It’s fairly intensive for a short period of time and then, really, the growers would be able to sit back and start reaping the rewards," Skinner says with a chuckle.
That short period is mid-October to late November, when the flowers bloom and the saffron needs to be harvested by hand and dried. After that, Skinner says the plants don’t need any attention. They’ll keep growing on their own in the high tunnel until they go dormant in February or March.
About 40 miles south of St. Albans, at her UVM lab in South Burlington, Dr. Skinner has set up rows of trays for drying the powdery threads of the stigmas that will become saffron. “This is where we bring those samples — the flowers that we’ve harvested up in St. Albans," she says.
Skinner has been working on this project with UVM post-doctorate student, Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, who is from Iran.
Arash, as he prefers to be called, says that saffron is used as a spice in pretty much every dish in his native Iran. And, yes, the climate in Iran is nearly ideal for growing saffron. But there is another factor to consider – and this is where Vermont comes in: its soil.
“The organic material in Vermont soil is 10 times more than we have in Iran," Arash says. "And this fact helps saffron a lot for having better yield compared to my country, compared to Spain, Italy or some other producing regions.”
Indeed, their research shows that — after one year — Vermont yields were nearly three times greater than what is reported in key saffron-growing areas. That's for saffron that was grown in a high tunnel.
But what about the quality? Dr. Skinner says they’ve been testing the chemical compounds that influence two key components of saffron – flavor and color.
"We’ve found that in general the saffron we grew here in Vermont in high tunnels was equal to that of these compounds found in the Italian and Spanish and Iranian samples – so that’s good news for us," she says. "That means not only can we produce a higher amount of it, but our quality is as good as or better than what can buy in the store.”
Skinner says she really didn’t know what to expect when they first planted the fall-blooming saffron crocuses over a year ago. Since then, she’s been doing some calculating.
“We estimated that a grower who’s really serious about it and is doing it right could make $100,000 an acre – which is incredible," Skinner says with emphasis. "I mean, that’s obviously large scale,” she adds.
Large-scale, yes. And maybe still a ways off. One of the challenges of growing the plant is battling small predators — rodents love to eat the saffron crocus. And Dr. Skinner says researchers will need to keep testing and refining their production methods and answer growers' questions about the viability of a saffron crop.
But in the meantime, Skinner remains steadfast in her belief: that saffron could someday equal maple syrup — and become Vermont's other "golden crop."