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.”
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.
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.”
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.”