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The price of gold skyrockets in unsteady economic times. But since you can’t grow gold, saffron might be the next best thing.
In fact, at one time the price per gram of the world’s most iconic metal was actually the same as this purple plant anyone can grow. Now, the current estimated price per pound of saffron is $1500 (a little more than the price of an oz of gold) and some varieties even fetch up to $10k for a pound.
see this new article on growing other rare plants in hydroponics and vertical farms
Peyam found that he could grow 72 saffron corms (corms are like bulbs) in 8 square ft in a hydroponic table inside his greenhouse. His corms flowered and were ready for harvest within 3 months. When it came to taking care of the plants, Peyam said “No pollination needed.” Just watering. “You harvest the stigmas (that’s the saffron herb with all the color). Saffron is a weird mutation in nature (has no male part) so seeds are never formed.”
You don’t have to worry about saving seeds, the bulb goes dormant during the summer, and the process begins anew. I suspect you could accelerate that process with more environmental controls and Peyam agrees you can at least mimic optimum conditions.
He didn’t get into any overly technical processes within his greenhouse, either. I asked him if he had considered any methods like NFT or ebb and flow. “I did flood the table one time with a very low flood (since the blocks are so short),” Peyam answered. “But mostly just top watering with a watering can.”
This is the point in our conversation when I was elated. A relatively short planting to harvesting time with a low technical investment that produced such massive returns was more than intriguing and definitely within reach. I was ready to order the corms.
Unfortunately, reality had to kick in. “I read somewhere [that it takes] 75,000 blossoms to produce a pound” Peyam said. Even considering each corm can produce up to three blossoms, that’s still 25,000 corms needed for just 1 pound.
On top of that, saffron is one of the most tedious crops to harvest, requiring harvesters to gently pluck each fragile stigma from inside the blossoms. In fact, besides the arid climate, Iran is only the world’s largest saffron exporter because the cost of labor is so low.
Finally, based on Peyam’s figures, the space investment/pound of the precious stigmas would be 2777 sq. ft of hydroponic space. With a space that large, your value/sq. foot wouldn’t be comparable to other high-value, and faster growing, herbs.
All that said, there is room to innovate. You could certainly grow more efficiently by growing vertically, whether that’s with a tower structure or with stacked shelves depends on future experimentation. There may even be a way to streamline labor without compromising quality. Though there isn’t a formula for either of these things, there is space to improve.
I was happy to shoot my pipe dream through Peyam, but unfortunately, hydroponic saffron is not the next get rich quick success story waiting to happen. I’ll be on the lookout though, and if you think of something first, feel free to let me know.
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This article was a bit different than what I usually write about. First, I was excited to involve someone else, like I did with John here, but I was also glad to talk about an idea that I actually began to pursue. As a result, this article felt more personal to me. Let me know what you thought on twitter (@proverticalfarm) or by signing up for my mailing list and dropping me a line.