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Saffron is spicing up a New Haven farm

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Posted on December 3, 2018 |
By Christopher Ross



Saffron and solar flower close up_3903 CMYK.jpg
SOME BELIEVE FARMLAND that hosts solar arrays can again become agriculturally productive by hosting plats of Crocus sativus, the stigmata of which is harvested and sold as the expensive spice saffron. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

NEW HAVEN — Thanks to a partnership between Peck Electric and University of Vermont, flowers that produce the most expensive spice in the world this fall were blooming in the shade of a few New Haven solar panels.

It’s too soon to tell whether saffron, which retails for between $3,000 and $9,000 a pound, will become a viable crop in Vermont, but three years of testing by UVM’s North American Center for Saffron Research and Development have produced promising results. The flowers from which the precious saffron threads are harvested, Crocus sativus, bloom in the agricultural down-time of late autumn, they thrive in Vermont soil and, when protected from the elements by high tunnels, have so far proven hardy enough to thrive in the Northern New England climate.

For an electric company looking to add agricultural productivity to its solar farms — where protection from the elements already exists under rows of photovoltaic panels — this was a big deal.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Steve Yates, solar project manager at Peck, which is based in Williston. “It negates the idea that land used for solar arrays is no longer agriculturally useful.”

PECK ELECTRIC SET up this solar array in New Haven, which hosts test beds for growing flowers that produce saffron. Company officials say pairing solar and saffron could be a “game changer.” (Photo courtesy of Peck Electric.) Below, saffron flowers in bloom in New Haven.

Photo by Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani

Last year Peck offered UVM’s saffron research center a two-year grant to test saffron on a New Haven solar farm near Otter Creek, on land owned by Edward and Shirley Gervais.

“They’re in the middle of the study right now, but all indications are really good,” Yates said. Though they don’t yet know what the value of this or next year’s crops will be, there is the potential to build another revenue stream for farms hosting solar arrays, he added.

Produced almost exclusively in regions along the ancient Silk Route — Persia, Kashmir and the Mediterranean — Saffron has flavored food, dyed fabrics and refined perfumes for thousands of years. Today, universities and pharmaceutical companies around the world are researching its potential as a medical treatment for things like depression and cancer. The United States imports 46 tons of saffron annually — more than half a billion dollars’ worth.

Saffron might be easy to grow, but harvesting it is labor-intensive. Extracting and drying the flower’s brilliant red stigmas is still done by hand. In countries like Iran, which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s saffron, the cost of labor is significantly lower than in Vermont. Can the Green Mountain State compete?

Yes, said Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a postdoctoral researcher at UVM, who also happens to be a native of Iran.

In fact, this was his idea.

“I was doing statistical models on high tunnels in Vermont and determined that the temperatures were comparable with those in Iran,” said Ghalehgolabbehbahani. That made him wonder...

“Why don’t we grow saffron in Vermont?” Ghalehgolabbehbahani asked his colleague, entomologist Margaret Skinner.

Skinner was initially doubtful, he said.

“But five minutes later she came back and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Based on test crops in 2015 and 2016, Ghalehgolabbehbahani, Skinner and their colleague Bruce Parker estimated that an acre of Vermont soil could generate more than $100,000 worth of saffron — more per square foot than tomatoes or winter greens.

They generated so much interest that they formed the North American Center for Saffron Research and Development in 2016 and began offering annual saffron workshops. The center has gathered contacts for 400 to 500 people whose have expressed some level of interest in saffron, and 150 to 200 of them are from Vermont, Ghalehgolabbehbahani said.

A few of them have planted test crops, themselves.

According to Skinner and Yates, one Vermont grower planted 2,500 corms in 2017 and harvested more than 5,000 flowers this year. She sold 30 grams of her crop for $25/gram to a New York City chef who valued the high quality and Vermont-grown brand.

In Swanton, Steve Leach has opened Red Thread Farmstand, which sells saffron and saffron products through its website.

It takes at least two years to assess a crop’s yield, so Ghalehgolabbehbahani won’t get useful data in New Haven until next year. But when he visited the solar farm early in November to count flowers and index leaves, things were looking good. The plants growing under the solar panels stood straighter and possessed firmer petals than those that were growing in beds between the panels — the result, perhaps, of being better protected from the elements.

Abbey Willard, Director of the Agricultural Development Division of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, which is also funding UVM’s saffron research, said the solar-farm development comes as no surprise.

“What we’re seeing in Vermont agriculture is a real shift toward diversification and value-added products, and this is a perfect example,” she said. “We like to see partnerships like this. It’s what’s encouraging about Vermont.”

UVM RESEARCHER ARASH Ghalehgolabbehbahani, shown at a test plot in New Haven growing saffron flowers last month, says that an acre of Vermont land could generate more than $100,000 worth of the precious spice.

Independent photo/Christopher Ross

In addition to Peck Electric and the state, UVM’s saffron research counts among its generous supporters the USDA, the Hatch Project and the Arab Society of America. If it turns out that saffron is a viable product, future support may need to coalesce around creating a brand.

“If it succeeds, marketing will be a big part of it,” Ghalehgolabbehbahani said.

Saffron is literally worth its weight in gold, but without a similarly valuable brand, it may never catch on in Vermont.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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