What if we told you there is a crop that is high value, low in infrastructure and labour costs, doesn’t need high amounts of water or fertiliser, and can give you an income on as little as quarter of a hectare? It sounds impossible, but it’s true. That crop is saffron and this is your guide to farming with saffron in South Africa.
Saffron is a new crop in Mzansi. Before we get into the how and the where of farming with saffron, let’s find out a bit more about this wonder crop.
So, what is saffron?
Saffron, as you might have heard, has been touted as “the world’s most legendary spice”. The spice comes from the stigmas in the centre of the purple crocus sativus flower. This highly valuable spice is rich in colour and flavour. And, according to Bennie Engelbrecht, owner of Saffricon, it is the crop that South Africa needs right now.
Originally from Namibia, Engelbrecht grew up on a farm. But for the last 30 years he has been working night shift at SuperSport as a transmission producer.
“I grew up on a farm and always wanted to farm,” he says. “But I never had the opportunity to do so.”
Finally, he decided to chase his dream and decided to farm with a crop that nobody was really farming with instead of going the conventional route. In 2017 he imported saffron corms from Europe and planted his first corms to experiment with. His first yield was successful, and so his dream started.
“54 years old, but you’re never too old to start your dream,” he laughs.
Engelbrecht now believes that saffron might be the crop that we need to address some of the social and economic challenges we face in Mzansi.
“This country really needs something that can turn people’s lives around,” he says. “Saffron can be planted on a small piece of land and could potentially change your life.”
“Not everybody has 100 hectares to farm on,” he explains. “But saffron only needs a quarter of a hectare for an economic unit.”
Not only does saffron not require a lot of space, but it can also be planted in some of the more difficult farming areas in South Africa.
Eric Brown, owner of Karoo Fresh in Touws Rivier in the Western Cape, reckons that saffron is a great crop for that area. Brown has farmed with many things in the Karoo, and it was difficult to make a success in that extreme climate.
“I realised that I needed to get something that is high value, does not need a lot of infrastructure, and is low risk in different weather conditions,” he says. And then he stumbled upon saffron.
For Brown, saffron was the perfect solution. When he saw that the crop can take cold weather to -18 degrees Celsius and only needs 150mm a year, he knew he had the perfect crop.
“It ticks all the boxes,” he says. “I think that’s the answer for the Karoo.”
Now that you know what saffron is, you probably want to try farming with this crop. Here is your guide to farming with saffron in Mzansi, from finding the right climate, planting and harvesting timelines, to finding a market for your saffron.
Where to farm with saffron
“Because it is a new crop in south Africa, it is very important that you try it on a very small scale in the beginning to make sure that it grows in your area,” is the sage advice from Engelbrecht. “Then you can make an educated decision to pursue it or not if it doesn’t work for you.”
Because saffron is a new crop in South Africa, there is not a lot of data on where it grows best. In order to find out where he can farm with saffron, Engelbrecht compared where saffron is currently produced in large scale and compared it to the different climate regions in South Africa.
“The first thing you read about saffron is that it needs a Mediterranean climate,” Engelbrecht explains. “But when you look at where it is grown across the world, you can see that that is not really the case.”
According to Engelbrecht, Iran is the biggest producer of saffron, and they also plant it in New Zealand where it is very cold and wet.
“They plant it in Tasmania, Australia, South America,” he continues to list. “So, all of those things said to me that that [Mediterranean climate] isn’t really a requirement.”
This year he planted saffron in all the nine provinces across South Africa, and according to him the crop does well everywhere so far.
“You shouldn’t be too concerned with the climate regions,” he says. “But time will tell what the success will be in the different areas.”
Seeing as this is only the first year’s harvest, it will become more apparent only later where saffron performs well and where it does not.
Brown isn’t so optimistic that saffron will work everywhere. “You can probably grow the corms everywhere,” he explains. “But I don’t think you will get the flowers everywhere.”
This is because saffron needs a certain amount of cold units to stimulate the bulb when it comes out of dormancy, according to Brown.
“In some places you can get two to six kilograms on a hectare, and other places where you will not even harvest 500 grams on a hectare,” Brown says. “That’s why we still need to test in south Africa where the best areas are.”
He estimates that any area north or north-east of the N1 will be the best places for the bulbs to form.
Engelbrecht says that the planting season for saffron in South Africa is between the beginning of March and April/May.
The saffron growing season is quite short. Most of it happens underground in the corms, until the flowers appear aboveground. According to Engelbrecht the flowers should appear about 40 days after planting.
“You can plant a bit later but then it becomes a bit risky,” Engelbrecht says. “There’s a chance that you won’t get flowers.”
Brown says that the key to success with saffron is to plant it in the perfect location. The other key to success is understanding how the corms work, their dormancy and keeping them in optimum conditions for the highest yield.
“Make sure that the ground and the water you use is suited for saffron,” Brown also recommends.
After the flowering season and the harvest, Brown explains that the bulbs will continue growing underground from March until end of October/November. Then they go into dormancy.
“If you are in a climate where you don’t have a lot of summer rain, and where the soil drains quite well, you don’t have to take out the corms,” says Brown. “Then when the season starts again they will just come out of dormancy by themselves.”
You can leave them in the soil for three to four years, according to Brown.
Some bulbs will be small, medium or large. Brown says one big corm can make up to six flowers, the medium around three flowers, and the small ones likely won’t even flower.
“That’s why I think you should take them out after four years,” he says. “Then you can class them and separate them into different beds.”
The bigger bulbs should go into one bed for flowering, then you have beds for the smaller and medium corms where you just leave them to multiply and grow.
But if you are in an area with lots of summer rain, or the soil doesn’t drain well, then Brown suggests taking the corms out in October or November. Store the corms in a cool, dry place until the next planting season.
Brown explains that the whole post-harvest process requires very little infrastructure apart from the basics.
“All other crops need infrastructure, you need packing facilities, you need drying facilities,” he says. “With saffron everything you have at your house, that’s what you need to make a success with this crop.”
After harvesting the flowers from the field, the stigmas need to be removed and sorted.
“There is a lighter colour red at the base, and the top third is the dark red of the saffron,” explains Brown. “This is also referred to as class one.”
The class one saffron strands are what will get you the highest export price. Put those between two kitchen towels in the oven for five minutes at 180 degrees. This is so that the heat does not come in direct contact and damage the saffron, Brown explains.
“Then you store it in a glass jar with a lid, and once a day open it to let a little air in,” Brown says. “And that’s basically that.”
Is there a market for saffron in South Africa?
South Africa has a very small market for saffron, according to Engelbrecht.
“It has to do with people that don’t know saffron that well,” he says. “It’s going to be a bit of time before we get higher consumption in south Africa.”
“All the saffron I farm goes to the Middle East,” says Brown. “There is demand locally, but the price is better overseas.”
So if you want to make the most of your saffron yield, the biggest market for saffron is the export market.
“Most of the exports go to the UAE, to Bahrain and to Dubai, places like that,” Engelbrecht says.
Want to start farming with saffron? Here are some tips for you:
Because saffron is a relatively new crop in South Africa, there will still be a bit of trial and error. Engelbrecht recommends starting small and getting to know the crop.
Engelbrecht has started Saffricon, farming with saffron himself, but also with the aim to help other farmers to get started with their own saffron crops.
“We take small steps every day, and everybody takes steps in the same direction,” Engelbrecht says.
Engelbrecht has the following advice for new farmers:
“A big dream can fit into any small house. You should never limit yourself in your current situation to what the possibility of the future is. Always dream big and believe what you do. Keep going and never ever give up. That’s not an option in life.”
Another tip is to have someone that believes in your dream with you.
Engelbrecht mentions that he got his support from Corné Liebenberg at Laeveld Agri who believed in his dream from the beginning.
“The big problem with dreams is to take it from a dream to reality. And if you don’t have people that believe in that dream with you, it’s very difficult to cross that part between having a dream and making it a reality.”