harvested from a crocus that blooms during a short period in autumn

Waldoboro farmer cultivates the rare and commanding spice, saffron

Sat, 02/02/2019 - 8:30am

WALDOBORO — When Barbara Boardman and her husband, Chris Augusta, moved to Maine in 2000 they were inspired by their rich personal connections to a state where he summered as a child and she attended college. Settling on a 68-acre parcel dubbed White Duck Farm, Boardman is now foraying into an exotic agricultural crop, especially here in Maine: the prized vivid red spice saffron. 

Boardman explained that when the couple made the decision to move to Maine from Cambridge, Massachusetts, they also considered Vermont as a destination. Augusta is an artist and Boardman said she “loves to get her hands in the dirt.”

However, it wasn’t until 2006 that Boardman said she began farming at White Duck. 

In 2013, Boardman said that White Duck Farm received organic certification from Maine Organic Farmers Association (MOFGA). 

“I’ve always gardened so I have always had an elaborate vegetable patch wherever I’ve been,” she said.

Initially she was selling produce at farmers’ markets and thinking about implementing a full community supported agriculture (CSA) program; however, she has now a penchant for perennial crops to sustain her farm.  

“I’m thinking long-term,” she said. 

Among those perennial crops are kiwis and saffron, the latter a spice first cultivated in Persia that commands both accolades from chefs and lofty prices from retailers. Saffron has a unique flavor, and its color is equally alluring. It is used to impart flavor and its trademark golden color on rice and favorite dishes, including paella and bouillabaisse.

The spice is considered difficult to harvest and has a minute yield, driving its cost and desirability. It takes 50 to 60 flowers to produce a single tablespoon of the spice, according to the website Gardening Know How. An April 2018 interview with Business Insider reveals that saffron can command up to $5,000 per pound rendering it the most expensive spice in the world. 

Saffron is now grown primarily in Iran according to Business Insider. It is harvested from a crocus that blooms during a short period in autumn. 

“They bloom in September, October, sometimes even November,” Boardman said. 

Boardman cultivates raspberries and ground cherries and also runs a small CSA that provides winter greens to members of the local community February through the end of May. 

She explained that 2018 and 2019 are transitional years for White Duck Farm as she plants, tends and plans her newest perennial crops. 

“It’s all about getting the kiwis and saffron ready,” she said, explaining that the kiwis are trellised and planted but not set to produce just yet. 

Prompted by a friend, Boardman attended a conference in Vermont in 2017 on growing saffron in New England. She said the conference focused on growing in crates, inside a hoop house, which is precisely what she set up to do. Fortunately she planted about half of her saffron corms outdoors, as she lost the crop planted in crates. 

“I thought [the outdoor plantings] would be the marginal ones,” she said. “You’re basically trying to mimic a [dry, arid] Persian climate in New England.”

Sure enough, Boardman had a harvest last fall. 

She discussed the waiting game with saffron: Staring at a bare patch of soil during the summer months and wondering if one has a viable crop beneath.

Due to the late blooming saffron crocuses, they also face some adversity that differs from typical Maine crops, including rodent issues that can be more significant due to the scarcity of other food sources.

Last fall, Boardman said she was dismayed to see the crocuses getting pelted with rain and worried it might compromise the saffron, which grows in approximately three strands per flower, comprising the stigma which is the ovule producing (or female) portion of the flower’s center. 

Boardman said she has read that other parts of the flower, including the stamens and petals, can be used as natural dyes.

She explained that as she familiarizes herself with growing saffron she also contemplates investing in a shelter for her saffron beds. Like anything, the cost is a factor in farming. 

“There are many things to juggle,” she said, “I have a lot to figure out, plus the time spent producing the crop. There are still systems to be figured out for growing [saffron] in New England.” 

Last year Boardman said she sold her saffron to a private chef and to Split Rock Distilling for use in their simple syrup. She also sells other products, including raspberries, to vendors including the Riding Tide Co-Op, Good Tern Co-Op, Portland Co-op and Main Street Market. 

Boardman said that due to the autumn timing of the saffron crocus bloom she is able to enjoy the harvest, additionally, saffron must be dried which allows her some time to market in between harvest and sale. 

The harvest entails picking the flowers and settling into a comfortable spot to separate the stigmas before drying them.

“How wonderful it is to be immersed in a bed of flowers in the fall,” she mused. She added that pollinators flock to her saffron crocuses, as well.

“[This crop] helps me take advantage of a time of the year when not a lot else is going on,” she said. “This is a wonderful thing for a farmer.”

Boardman said she hopes to add online sales in the future. Follow White Duck Farm’s progress at its Facebook page, website, or Instagram at @whiteduckfarmmaine. 

Jenna Lookner can be reached at jlooknercopy@gmail.com