ST. ALBANS, Vt. — The greenhouse in the snow by Lake Champlain has holes in its plastic wrapping, and nothing about the soil-filled milk crates on the tarp-covered ground suggests it is part of a grand experiment.
But after two years of research, scientists at the University of Vermont believe that an exotic crop — once unthinkable here, and perhaps laughable, too — might boost this bucolic state’s agricultural economy.
The crop is saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, 90 percent of which comes from half a world away in the semi-arid fields of Iran. It’s an ancient crop, used for thousands of years in food and dyes and linked in lore to mysterious — almost magical — medicinal powers.
Now, it’s found a tiny toehold in Vermont, which, it turns out, has a climate much like northeastern Iran’s.
To her delight, UVM researcher Margaret Skinner discovered that saffron planted in the greenhouse had up to four times the yield of that grown in Iran and withstood the Vermont cold much better than expected.
“We didn’t want to start promoting it until we had data,” Skinner said. “But saffron has incredible potential to fit into a unique niche.”
At $19 a gram and $100,000 of estimated revenue per acre, saffron also has a chance to be uniquely profitable in Vermont, the scientist said. “You can start making money the first year. To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Skinner said.
The saffron flower, which blooms and is harvested in late October to early November, could benefit Vermont farmers as a complementary crop, Skinner said.
“If I want to make a living as a farmer, I have to do a bit of everything,” said Skinner, who grew up in the state. “They are looking for new cropping ideas, and this doesn’t take a lot of science or education.”
The saffron experiment would not have started without a simple question from an Iranian who came to Vermont two years ago to visit his wife, who was studying at the university.
The query came from Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a post-doctoral associate who works with Skinner and knows the spice from his time in Mashhad, a city in northeastern Iran where saffron plays an important economic and cultural role.
“I always was thinking about saffron, the most expensive legal crop in the world,” Ghalehgolabbehbahani said with a smile.
“One day he asked, ‘Why don’t you grow saffron in Vermont?’ ” recalled Skinner, who codirects the university’s Entomology Research Lab. “My initial thought was ‘Nah, I’ve tried to grow it in the backyard.’ ”
Growing the delicate purple flower is one thing. Extracting by hand its three reddish stigmas — the threads where pollen germinates in reproduction — is another.
Still, Ghalehgolabbehbahani’s question and its possibilities lingered with Skinner, and she began searching for ways to investigate.
The means were supplied by Bob Roberts, a 71-year-old retiree whose dream is to create a research and innovation center in the St. Albans area. Roberts offered the greenhouse and has supplied more than $140,000 in funding over two years.
“This can be a huge cash crop,” Roberts said.
Saffron plays an integral role in the daily Iranian diet and is used in risotto and paella dishes that are better known among Americans, who consume about 25 tons of saffron a year. But part of what attracted Roberts to the experiment is its medicinal potential.
“There’s a lot of cancer in my extended family,” Roberts said.
Many regard saffron as a cancer-fighting agent and treatment for depression and high blood pressure, Skinner said.
The benefits of growing saffron in Vermont — medicinal, financial, dietary — are obvious to the scientist. But finding a way to cultivate the flower in a northern New England climate was the tricky proposition.
The answers have come from the greenhouse — a protective “high tunnel,” in Skinner’s terminology — and the use of milk crates to provide a roadblock against predatory rodents. Not only did saffron corms, or bulbs, show a resistance to the cold, but the projected revenue per square foot was 15 percent higher than for tomatoes and more than twice the value of winter greens, Skinner said.
Most of the small amount of saffron being grown in the United States is planted primarily by Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pa.
The findings from Vermont startled Susan Liechty, past president of the Herb Society of America, which gave Skinner and her team a $5,000 grant this year. “I was thrilled. The results they are getting are pretty spectacular,” said Liechty, who has been experimenting with the plant in her Ohio garden.
“Saffron about four years ago became a passion of mine,” Liechty said. “I visited a saffron farm in Italy and was so intrigued by the whole thing.”
Skinner knows saffron is a difficult match for Vermont farmers. The crop is sensitive, the winters are formidable, plucking the stigmas is labor-intensive, and there are the costs of marketing and packaging. Still, she is excited: The ancient spice of saffron, contrary to expectations, grows in Vermont. “Why didn’t they do it 20 years ago?” Skinner asked with a smile. “Because no one had thought about it.”