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Owner Simon Avery, right, and Ragan Glover, of Kentucky, harvest the tiny Crocus sativus flowers for saffron before sunrise at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The farm grows only 1/4 acre but is the largest producer of saffron in North America. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

How a small Lake County farm became North America’s largest saffron producer

Peace & Plenty Farm, located in the shadow of Mt. Konocti just 4 miles outside downtown Kelseyville, is a bit off the beaten track.

Even so, it had everything Melinda Price and Simon Avery were looking for five years ago when they decided to become first-time farmers of saffron, a niche crop worth its weight in gold.

“This was a 7.3-acre horse ranch,” said Price, looking every bit the farm girl in brown overalls and boots on a drizzly mid-October day. “I moved from San Francisco and Simon moved from Chico. I was looking for quiet and good air.”

Saffron is the dried stigma of an autumn-blooming purple crocus, Crocus sativus. The bright red threads growing out of each flower’s style have been prized since antiquity as a dye, a health remedy and a culinary spice.

“The first people to use it were the Persians, and they used it to dye textiles,” Price said. “And then someone smelled it or drank it and started cooking with it. … There are also theories that this strain of crocus only grows wild in Crete.”

After harvesting the closed Crocus sativus flowers before sunrise, workers spend twice as long to remove the three red stigmata per flower for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The farm grows only 1/4 acre but is the largest producer of saffron in North America.   (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
After harvesting the closed Crocus sativus flowers before sunrise, workers spend twice as long to remove the three red stigmata per flower for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The farm grows only 1/4 acre but is the largest producer of saffron in North America. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The ancient Greeks used the spice to scent and purify their temples. Alexander the Great is said to have bathed in saffron water to heal battle wounds during his campaign through Persia. Buddhist monks in India began wearing saffron-colored robes more than 2,000 years ago.

As a culinary spice, saffron is often crushed and pressed into service in the places where it is harvested, including Spain, Greece, Morocco, Iran, India and Pakistan.

The Spanish use its golden color in seafood broths and in their national dish, paella. It is essential to the tagines of Morocco and the cherished rice dishes of Iran, and it is equally at home in classic European dishes like Italy’s risotto alla Milanese and Marseille’s bouillabaisse.

Although the Peace & Plenty grows saffron in just two small fields that add up to a quarter acre, the farm is the largest producer of saffron in North America. As a result, the farmers have gotten a lot of publicity for their unusual venture.

The three red stigmata from the Crocus sativus flower is pulled and dried to create saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
The three red stigmata from the Crocus sativus flower is pulled and dried to create saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Martha Stewart magazine published a “Maker” piece about the farm in the October 2020 issue. This fall, the farmers played host to a PBS film crew who shot the saffron fields for a series that will air this March through May.

“People are surprised we grow saffron,” Price said. “We thought it would help us grow other crops. Now we make a living growing vegetables, and the saffron just gets us attention.”

The Kelseyville farm’s name came from a big wooden quilt above the barn door painted in warm hues of saffron yellow, orange and red. The Amish quilt pattern is known as Peace and Plenty, which seemed perfect to Price, who had been dreaming of becoming a farmer for two decades while working in San Francisco and raising her daughter.

“Meeting Simon was the key,” she said. “He worked in conservation and was an ornithologist for The Nature Conservancy. He also did some construction and land management.”

Amish and Mennonite immigrants, fleeing persecution in western Europe, brought Crocus sativus 300 years ago to the U.S., where its unique flavor became a mainstay of the hearty noodles, dumplings and cakes scenting their kitchens in Eastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

“They put it in porridge and bread rolls, and they believe in its health benefits,” Price said. “There are lab studies and research that says saffron helps with mood, fights Parkinson’s disease and cancer and helps with macular degeneration.”

Owner Melinda Price harvests the tiny Crocus sativus flowers for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The farm grows only 1/4 acre but is the largest producer of saffron in North America.   (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Owner Melinda Price harvests the tiny Crocus sativus flowers for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The farm grows only 1/4 acre but is the largest producer of saffron in North America. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

In bloom when everything is dying off

Saffron crocuses yield a very limited crop in the first season. But over time, the corms, like bulbs, multiply. Eventually, each corm can push up as many as 18 flowers.

“The one corm you plant in August will become 10 in the spring,” Price said. “All the leaf growth is in the fall and winter. Then it channels the energy into making multiple corms. ... They lose leaves and stay dormant in June, July and August, and then bloom when everything else is dying off.”

But home gardeners should beware: some uneducated gardeners have been posting #saffron photos on Instagram showing other varieties of crocus, so be sure you buy your corms from a trusted source.

“You can only grow the Crocus sativus for culinary use, and the flowers are always purple,” Price said. “The others are poisonous.”

A single day harvest of the flowers from the Crocus sativus flower before the stigma are removed and dried to create saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.   (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
A single day harvest of the flowers from the Crocus sativus flower before the stigma are removed and dried to create saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

In its first season, the farm produced only 25 grams of saffron, which Price put to good use in her own kitchen, making her favorite winter stew with garbanzo beans swimming in a rich chicken broth flavored with saffron.

“I constantly cook with saffron,” she said. “I love the saffron aioli, as an appetizer with roasted beets ... and I also love saffron with orange vegetables like carrots and butternut squash.”

Although it has a soft flavor profile — floral and sweet, earthy and bitter at the same time — saffron’s taste is highly concentrated. When making soups and stews, you only need a small pinch, crushed and dissolved in hot broth.

The labor-intensive harvest

On that mid-October day, Price was excited as she led a tour of her saffron fields and pointed out a few periwinkle buds already poking their heads out of beds rimmed with gopher wire.

“Rain is great,” she said. “They like moisture starting in the fall, and they need cold nights to get woken up.”

Although growing the flower is fairly simple, the harvest of its tiny threads requires a strong back, precise motor skills and plenty of patience.

Milan Nelson of Arizona and owner Melinda Price harvest the tiny Crocus sativus flowers for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Milan Nelson of Arizona and owner Melinda Price harvest the tiny Crocus sativus flowers for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

This year, Price and Avery started picking at the end of October from the two fields that are now home to about half a million plants. The harvest continues for a few weeks, as new flowers pop up from the corms.

The harvest usually lasts until Thanksgiving, when everyone in Price’s family descends on the Kelseyville farmstead for a homegrown Thanksgiving feast.

“The first year we had everyone here, we ate in the farmstand,” she said. “This year, my plan is to rent heaters and eat early.”

Saffron Celebration

What: Winter Celebration for the end of saffron harvest includes refreshmens such as saffron cookies and saffron hot chocolate and shopping for a selection of farm-grown gifts and goodies. Visitors can walk back to the saffron fields and try to spot a late saffron crocus flower.

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 28

Where: Peace & Plenty Farm, 4550 Soda Bay Road Kelseyville

Information: peaceplentyfarm.com or the farm’s Facebook page.

Although the farm welcomes visitors throughout the year, the couple cannot afford to open their doors during the labor-intensive harvest. However, they will invite visitors to the farm for a Winter Celebration on Nov. 28.

During the busy harvest season, the crew starts picking the flowers by hand before dawn, starting as early as 3 a.m. and continuing until 9 a.m., in order to preserve the spice’s strength.

“We pick the flowers when they are closed,” Price said. “As soon as the sun hits the flower, the petals open and the rays leach out the potency. … Saffron losses its potency the longer it sits in the sun.”

The harvest crew must pluck the stigmas from the flowers that same day, either under the walnut trees or in the separate kitchen located next to the house.

A single day harvest of the flowers from the Crocus sativus flower before the stigma are removed and dried to create saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.    (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
A single day harvest of the flowers from the Crocus sativus flower before the stigma are removed and dried to create saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“That takes a long time,” Price said. “Then we dry the stigmas in a machine (for about 20 minutes), and we put them in big Mason jars and store them in a dark cupboard (for a few months) to let them cure.”

The curing process helps intensify the flavor, so that by the time the threads are packaged in small glass bottles — half gram bottles are $25 and whole gram bottles are $50 — the spice is at its peak potency.

Peace & Plenty Farm sells the saffron to locals at their farmstand and online across the country. The Boonville Hotel, where chef/partner Perry Hoffman uses it to flavor paella, aioli and other savory dishes, also stocks it on its shelves.

“We’re close to selling out (the 2020 crop) this year,” Price said. “This year’s crop will be ready to sell by February. People can pre-order the 2021 harvest, but I don’t recommend using it until February.”

Farm workers from across the United States harvest the tiny Crocus sativus flowers for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The farm grows only 1/4 acre but is the largest producer of saffron in North America.   (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Farm workers from across the United States harvest the tiny Crocus sativus flowers for saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The farm grows only 1/4 acre but is the largest producer of saffron in North America. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Why it’s such a pricey spice

Once dry, the saffron threads lose 80% of their weight. That means it takes 150 - 200 flowers to produce a mere gram of spice. That wispy weight and the heavy labor involved in the harvest make the tiny threads worth their weight in gold.

According to The North American Center for Saffron Research and Development at the University of Vermont, saffron fetches about $5,000 per pound retail, making it the most expensive spice in the world.

The farm also includes a walnut orchard that, like the saffron, is certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers. Behind their house, a field of fragrant lavender helps fill the gap between the winter and summer produce.

“It’s a big draw in the summer,” Price said of the lavender. “I make it into sachets, lemonade and cookies to sell at the farmstand.”

In October, the rustic farmstand is lined with jars of pickles, honey, flowers and a few winter vegetables like collards and butternut squash. It also showcases the Peace & Plenty line of loose tea: Golden Slumbers, a soothing blend of chamomile and saffron; Lovely Day, an energizing, mood-boosting blend of cacao and saffron; and Plenty of Peace, a refreshing blend of lavender, chamomile and mint.

“I love making tea,” Price said. “It’s such a nice ritual, and the loose tea is so much better. ”

To help with the farm’s bottom line, the couple also rents out a vintage Airstream trailer with an outdoor shower for farm stays during the warmer months and a small cottage that is dog-friendly.

After harvesting the closed flowers before sunrise, workers spend twice as long to remove the three red stigmata per Crocus sativa flower at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.   (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
After harvesting the closed flowers before sunrise, workers spend twice as long to remove the three red stigmata per Crocus sativa flower at Peace and Plenty Farm in Kelseyville on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Meanwhile, when they aren’t digging or watering, Price and Avery enjoy cooking and relaxing in the cozy 1870s farmhouse at the heart of the farm that boasts a soaring ceiling but not much insulation. The home’s kitchen is tiny, but chefs who cook farm-to-table dinners in the summer and fall can work in the bigger work kitchen next to the farmhouse.

The last farm dinner of the season took place Oct. 16, when Chef Arnon Oren of Richmond prepared saffron deviled eggs, a chicory salad with saffron aioli, slow cooked chicken brined in saffron, a ragu of fall vegetables topped with a saffron compound butter and a poached pear galette with saffron ice cream.

“It was perfect,” Price said. “There were about 100 people sitting on hay bales at long tables under the walnut trees.”

In January, the farm will start to slow down a bit, after the busy harvest season. That’s when the couple start planning their new crops and dreaming up the next beautification project. They hope to add a reception area next to the house, with a formal allée lined with crape myrtles.

After that, they have big plans to renovate the historic barn with a new roof and a concrete floor so they can host a handful of weddings each year under its tall rafters.

“We have a resident barn owl, Sleepy Pat,” Price said. “I call it my ag cathedral.”

Saffron facts

Crocus sativus, commonly known as saffron, is a perennial stemless herb. It is in leaf from October to May and in flower in October and November. The flowers are hermaphrodite (with both male and female organs) and are pollinated by bees and butterflies. The plant prefers sandy and loamy soils, requires well-drained soil and can grow in nutritionally poor soil.

The flower is made of the three parts that must be separated before drying: the red threads (stigmas), yellow center (stamen) and purple petals. Each part may have monetary value. The stigmas are the saffron; the stamens and petals are sometimes used as a dye.

Records of saffron cultivation and use for culinary and medicinal purposes date back to the Minoan time (3000 - 1450 B.C.) in Crete.

The Pennsylvania Dutch brought saffron to the U.S. 300 years ago, and it is enjoying a renaissance in North America today. Growers across the U.S. and Canada are growing saffron, some for the first time.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world ($5,000 per pound, retail).

Over 25 tons of saffron were imported to the U.S. in 2013.

The North American Center for Saffron Research and Development at the University of Vermont estimated the net revenue per square foot from saffron at $4.03, compared to $3.51 for tomatoes and $1.81 for winter greens.

Saffron is also known for its medicinal properties as an anti-carcinogen and to combat depression and reduce cholesterol.

Three important compounds have been identified in saffron: crocin, which produces the yellow-orange color; picrocrocin, which imparts the characteristic bitter flavor; and safronal, which is responsible for the smell. The goal of the drying process is to maximize these three compounds.

Sources: North American Center for Saffron Research and U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

______

“I tend to make my own chicken broth. It’s so easy if you have a rotisserie chicken, and it’s totally fine to use a vegetable broth,” Price said of this recipe, which she makes with the squash and greens she grows. “This is a complete meal with those greens in there. It feels like this soup keeps you well for the winter.”

Collard greens float on a simmering pot of Fall Veggie Saffron Stew in the kitchen of Peace & Plenty farmer Linda Price. (Melinda Price)
Collard greens float on a simmering pot of Fall Veggie Saffron Stew in the kitchen of Peace & Plenty farmer Linda Price. (Melinda Price)

Fall Vegetable Saffron Stew

Makes 6 servings

2 teaspoons (a hearty pinch) saffron

1 medium yellow onion, diced

4 stalks celery, diced

3 medium carrots, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil, or enough to cover bottom of pan

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon chile pepper flakes (or more to taste)

1 pinch kosher salt

4 cups chicken or veggie broth

4 small yellow potatoes, cubed

1-2 small winter squash, such as butternut or buttercup, peeled and cubed

3 cups cooked chickpeas (you can use canned chickpeas)

8 large leaves (4 cups) winter greens, such as collards, Swiss chard or kale

For garnish: saffron aioli (recipe follows)

Grind up the saffron threads in a mortar and pestle or with your fingers. Take ¼ cup of warm broth and add saffron to bloom. Set aside.

Cook vegetables over medium-low heat, adding spices and salt, for five minutes.

Add broth, cubed potatoes, cubed winter squash and chickpeas. Add the bloomed saffron with its liquid. Cover and bring stew to a simmer.

Julienne the greens (chop fine at a diagonal) and add to the stew after it has simmered for 10 minutes. Cook until carrots and squash are tender, about 15 - 20 minutes longer.

Serve in a rustic bowl, with crusty bread and drizzles of aioli on top.

The following two recipes are from Perry Hoffman, chef/partner of the Boonville Hotel in Boonville. You also can make this recipe in a blender or food processor.

Saffron needs to be crushed in a mortar and pestle before adding warm water to allow its flavor to “bloom.” (Melinda Price)
Saffron needs to be crushed in a mortar and pestle before adding warm water to allow its flavor to “bloom.” (Melinda Price)

Saffron Aioli

Makes about 2 cups

4 garlic cloves

Salt, to taste

1 pinch Peace & Plenty saffron (bloomed in 1 tablespoon of 200-degree water for 15 minutes)

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon Dijon

2 cups good extra-virgin olive oil

In a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic with the salt. Add all the other ingredients except for oil. Drizzle in oil very slowly while emulsifying.

Hoffman suggests a good white bean such as the Sorana or the butter bean (lima bean).

“We love all the dried beans from the Boonville Barn Collective here in Anderson Valley,” he said. “The Sorana bean might be our all-time favorite.”

Simple Pot of Beans with Saffron and Meyer Lemon

Makes 6 servings as a side dish

1 pound good white beans

1 bay leaf

Salt, to taste

⅛ gram of Peace & Plenty saffron (infused for at least 30 minutes in 1 tablespoon of 200-degree water)

3 tablespoons butter

1 Meyer lemon, zested and juiced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives and rosemary

Carefully pick through the beans and then rinse thoroughly. If you have time to soak the beans, do so — either overnight or starting early in the morning of the day you want to cook them. The soaking will speed up the cooking time and impart a beautiful fullness to the beans that you don’t always get without this step.

To soak, cover the beans with water by a few inches and leave them out overnight or for at least four hours. Drain the beans and discard the soaking water. Put the beans in a large, heavy pot and add fresh water in an amount roughly double or triple the volume of beans. Bring the water to a low simmer and cook the beans, uncovered, until tender. Depending on the type of bean and its freshness, the cooking time can range from 35 minutes to three hours or more.

Season with salt in the last 10 - 15 minutes of cooking time, when the beans are nearly ready. Add the saffron (with the water) at this point as well. This gives the beans enough time to start absorbing some of the salt and saffron. (Salting earlier can sometimes result in tough beans or beans that break down more than desired.) Cool the beans at room temperature in their liquid.

To finish: Transfer about half the beans to a saucepan and add butter, herbs, lemon zest and juice. Simmer until butter is melted; remove from heat. Reserve the rest of the beans for another purpose. Serve as a side to almost any protein.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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