A decade ago, Kashmir’s saffron farmers were in a fix. The yields were dropping and experts said it was the end of the road for the industry. But all that has changed now and there’s a bit of a resurrection going on.

So in today’s Finshots, we explore saffron, zafran, or kesar’s road to revival.

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The Story

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world!

And that’s simply because of how hard it is to harvest its fragrant flower. You see, you extract the spice by extracting the stigma or the thin red threads of a beautiful lavender flower scientifically called the crocus sativus. And each flower can produce 3 fine red threads of saffron. So you’ll need at least 150 flowers to get 1 gram of saffron. And machines can’t handle this delicate work. It requires hard manual labour — 40 hours of work to produce 1 kg of good quality saffron. And one kilogram of saffron can go for as much as ₹3 lakhs!

That's the economics of harvesting saffron.

But here's the kicker. Pampore, a tiny town in Kashmir is the epicentre of saffron production. You’ll find over 20,000 local people working to extract this exquisite spice. And Kashmiri legend has it that sometime in the 12th century, two Sufi saints gifted the local chief the bulb of the flower after he cured them of an illness. The cultivation began soon after and it is now known as India’s saffron capital.

But all was not right in Pampore a couple of years ago.

The farmers were distressed. They didn’t want to grow the spice anymore. They felt they weren’t being rewarded for the hard work they put in. Production dipped by 65% in the last 22 years leading up to 2020 and the industry was in tatters.

Why did this happen, you ask?

Well, some of this was attributed to climate change. As per a story in Eater in 2019, “Saffron requires a very precise constituency (called karewa), a moist soil rich in humus content. Now a lot of bulbs that erupt are unfit for producing flowers, or diseased.” Frequent droughts and falling water levels in the streams and rivers destroyed the quality of the soil.

Now the government tried to fix it in 2010. It launched a ₹400 crore project that promised to revive it in a span of 4 years. It would entail trying to end the dry spell with ample irrigation through borewells. But it didn’t work. Not all the borewells promised were dug out. And some that were, had no access to electricity. And as news reports put it, a huge part of the funds remained unused and embezzled.

But that wasn’t the only problem. The bigger villain here was Iran.

You see, this Middle Eastern country is the world’s largest saffron producer. It makes up 90% of the world’s saffron production. And although Iran’s saffron is of great quality, it comes with a cheaper price tag than Kashmiri saffron. And that’s primarily because of its crocin content. Now, crocin is a chemical that’s responsible for giving saffron its deep crimson hue. And Kashmiri saffron has more of it. Thus making it superior by nature. So it also commands a 60-75% premium over its Iranian counterpart.

But the flipside is that the lower-priced Iranian saffron became an easy target for smugglers. Saffron business owners in Iran would sponsor some folks who’d carry Iranian saffron to India. And deliver it to popular markets like Delhi where it would be disguised as Kashmiri saffron. Kashmiri saffron farmers were losing money hand over fist. They simply couldn’t compete. They were slowly giving up.

Then came the saviour — the GI (geographical indication) tag of authenticity. Think of GI as an official tag confirming a product’s origin and unique reputation. And the Kashmiri saffron got the tag if it passed the necessary quality checks. And this little thing, in 2020, redeemed Kashmir’s saffron from the grasp of Iranian smugglers. It was the only GI-tagged saffron in the world.

Now people clearly knew if the saffron was authentic. And top chefs from across the world would be willing to shell out more. The demand sprung back and prices soared — from ₹2 lakhs to ₹3 lakhs in just the past year. Yup, it’s 5 times more expensive than silver. And the industry is finally smiling again.

Also, to combat the vagaries of rain, scientists have been experimenting with indoor farming. It doesn’t need vast stretches of land. Just trays. And it can even be done in one’s bedroom! Now it’s still in its experimental stages but the initial signs are positive. Some farmers are saying that the output is even better than what they cultivate out in the fields.

No wonder then that everyone’s getting more ambitious now. They want to take saffron production higher than ever before. From 18 tonnes to 25 tonnes a year. So for now, it seems that the threat of extinction is in the rearview mirror. And let’s hope that Pampore’s legacy continues as India’s saffron capital.

Until then…

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