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World's most expensive spice grown in Vermont

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Saffron is an exotic and expensive spice. It is made from the stigmas of the crocus flower and costs up to $5,000 a pound. So, it is usually sold just a couple of ounces at a time. Now, it is being grown in Vermont.

What's this crocus blooming in November? But these aren't just any crocuses. These are the flowers that produce saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.

"And in surveys we did very preliminary, probably in Vermont the cost is $20 a gram. It's tiny, just a few fibers of this stigma which is what the saffron is," said Margaret Skinner, Research Entomologist at UVM. 

Skinner is focusing on all things bug- and plant-related. She and several other researchers began the saffron research project over a year and a half ago when a grad student from Iran suggested they try it. Iran is the leading producer of saffron. These plants bloom in late fall after the busy summer harvest time here in Vermont.

"It seemed like a wonderful option for diversified farmers in Vermont to grow in high tunnels," said Skinner.

High tunnels are a kind of greenhouse. Many farms already have them, like this one in St. Albans which belongs to the nonprofit, Center for Lake Champlain Waterfront Research, Innovation and Implementation, which is helping to fund the saffron project. 

So far, results have been positive.

"What we were really amazed by in this first year was that growing the saffron in the high tunnel, we got higher yields by far than the reported yields that people get out in the field especially in Iran or Spain or Italy where most of the saffron is produced," said Skinner. 

But she says more research needs to be done because last winter was on the mild side. Would the crocuses grow as well in a typical bone-chilling Vermont winter?

Skinner says the potential for growing saffron in Vermont is huge; she says a farmer could possibly make up to $100,000 an acre on a successful saffron crop.

The researchers are now doing trials with three different types of saffron crocus bulbs called corms.

"We have around 3,500 corms in different treatments, we have three different sources of saffron corms. We have Dutch corms, we have Pennsylvania corms and we have some corms that we produced them last year in Vermont, we can call them Vermonters," said Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, research assistant.

The flowers are picked and will be dried, then the saffron will be harvested.

"The petals are stripped off and there it is," said Skinner.

And Skinner says test results from an independent lab show the Vermont saffron is every bit as good as samples purchased in stores.

But this project is in jeopardy because it is running out of funding. Skinner says they will begin writing grant proposals soon in hopes of getting more money to continue their work next year with Vermont saffron.

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