Spiced Up, Finally

After investing almost Rs 450 crore in the last decade in pre and post-harvest, Kashmir’s saffron fields in Pampore are smiling over the purple carpets for the first time. However, the positivity could be short-lived if the farmers do not alter the traditional means of growing and managing the flowery harvest, reports Minhaj Masoodi

As the autumnal breeze wafts through the saffron lands of Pampore and its adjoining areas, the farmers, unlike in the past, are optimistic about a good harvest. The world’s costliest spice has generated a buzz after many years with the purple flowers having carpeted the lands.

Men and women with small carry bags and baskets are seen plucking the freshly sprouted saffron flowers. For many, this is already their fifth pick of the season.

“This is after many, many years that we are having a good harvest,” said Ghulam Hassan, a saffron grower. “The production of saffron had dwindled over the last few years but this year, we are having a good harvest because rains happened at an opportune time. This is already my fifth pick of the season.” Last year, he said, he could manage only three picks.

Another farmer Abdul Majeed is also upbeat about this year’s yield. He said that he has already harvested around 100 kg of Saffron flowers. “I have around 30 kanals of land on which I grow Saffron and already having harvested 100 kgs, there is still a lot that is yet to be harvested.”

Positive Trends

Despite the enthusiasm and optimism shared by many farmers regarding the harvest, this fall, Saffron production has ebbed and flowed over the last few years. It has had a negative ring associated with it – that of adulteration, poor quality and low yield. While many farmers allege that the (Agriculture) Department hasn’t done enough and the National Saffron Mission, which was touted as a game-changer could only yield mixed results, those in the Department say that the spice production has now begun to show “definitively positive trends”.

Chaudhary Mohammad Iqbal, Director of Agriculture and Farming Welfare, said that the reasons for the decline in production were many. But the department took up the mantle of restoring the saffron production to its glory days and is on track to achieve good results.

“This year’s production will be a testimony to the department’s efforts,” Chaudhary insisted.  In a feasibility report from the Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology (SKUAST-K) in 2010, he said, a benchmark of total yield between 3.5 to 4.5 kg per hectare was predicted. “But due to the department’s interventions and untiring efforts to rejuvenate the Saffron fields under the National Saffron Mission, the production has crossed the 5kg per hectare mark.”

“People used to do a maximum of two picks earlier, but some have already done their sixth pick of the season. This year we will have the highest ever production in the last ten years,” Choudhary claimed.

As per the data available on the Directorate of Agriculture’s website, the saffron production had been badly hit with the area under saffron cultivation falling from 5707 hectares in 1996-97 to 3715 in 2009-10 and yield had dropped to 1.8 kg per hectare.

Choudhary said that the saffron that used to be sold at Rs 90-100 per gram is being sold at 190 rupees per gram at the Saffron Park at Pampore. While the department had made every effort to make a difference, one of the reasons behind the low production has been the land conversion, he said “Nobody talks about it. People have constructed mansions in the middle of saffron fields. The land mafia is eating away all the land. The revenue department needs to look at it, also. Every soil cannot grow saffron. It is specific to this area and it is important that we protect it from vested interests.”

In 2010, the spice faced a possible threat of extinction as per the reports of the Union Ministry of Agriculture and the then government of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Revival

In its 2010 report titled, Economic Revival of J&K Saffron Sector”, they warned about the threat of extinction that the saffron faced if immediate interventions were not made to protect and enhance the production. The report holistically looked at all the parameters from planting of the seed, intercultural interventions, cultivation practices to harvesting and post-harvest practices and the marketing at the end-stage. It laid the groundwork for the ambitious but controversial National Saffron Mission launched in 2010-11.

Under the National Saffron Mission, an area of 3715 hectares was proposed to be rejuvenated for Saffron production. The mission aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change by ensuring irrigation facilities, improving soil health by integrated nutrient management, enhancing intercultural operations, introducing hygienic harvesting practices, and later establishing a saffron park as a one roof solution to all post-harvesting procedures which also included marketing them to the potential buyers.

In the Rs 400 Crore project, Rs 315 crore were to be borne by the government of India while close to Rs 85 crore was contributed by the farmers.

“If the Government of India had not intervened and provided those 10-11 components under NSM, the production would have never been what it is today,” Chaudhary claimed. “I do agree that production has not been good previously. But due to the department’s efforts, now things are changing.”

Director said that against around 100 tube-wells to be constructed in the Pampore area under NSM, 97 have already been constructed and 76 have been handed over to the stakeholders. “Irrigation related projects such as wells and laying of pipes for sprinkler irrigation are the domain of the Mechanical Engineering Department, but we are all working in tandem.”

However, a farmer from Konibal, who chose to remain anonymous said that the tube wells that have been installed in the saffron fields are operated only by the officials of the department. “They come here to operate wells when we don’t need them. When we require water, officials are nowhere to be found,” he alleged. “They only come when a high-ranking official is on a visit to the place. Then they operate these wells and irrigate the fields on the roadside.”

Saffron Park

Under the National Saffron Mission that took care of the pre-harvest and the post-harvest of the spice, one of the components which aimed to ensure quality control and hassle-free marketing of the Kashmiri saffron was the establishment of Saffron Park at Dussu Pampore.  Named India International Kashmir Saffron Trading Centre (IIKSTC), the park was constructed at a cost of over Rs 35 crore.

The Park has been operational for over two years now and the response of the farmers has been positively growing.

Tariq Ahmad Parray, in charge of the Collection Centre at the Park, said that in the first year they had 100 farmers who had opted for the use of the facility. “Now, almost 600 farmers are already making use of the facility, while over 1000 have registered themselves.”

Professionals work in the Saffron park which offers cutting edge interventions to the spice. KL Image: Minhaj Masoodi

He said there is some reluctance on part of the farmers but we are expecting the response to growing even stronger.

The facility is touted as a one roof solution for all the post-harvest management of the saffron. The Saffron Park has six units. “We provide the baskets to the farmer for harvesting saffron from the fields from where they bring their produce directly to the collection centre at the park.”

In the collection centre, the baskets are tagged, coded and weighed subsequently. The farmers are then given a slip with a registration number and the produce is deposited at the centre. The tagging and coding are done to nullify any chance of impartiality.

In the second unit, the stigma is separated from the flower in Stigma Separation Halls. The facility currently has four of them and can house over 432 people at a time.

But, if a farmer wishes to separate stigma at a later date, he can store it in the cold storage where the optimum parameters are maintained so that the quality of the saffron does not deteriorate.

After that, the stigmas are sent into the drying hall where they are dried with the help of 4 vacuum dryers while maintaining the 12 per cent moisture content that is recommended under international standards.

Afterwards, the quality of the saffron is evaluated in the Quality Evaluation Lab which is NABL accredited where the Saffron is graded based on the percentage of crocin, picrocrocin and safranal, which give the spice its colouring, flavour and bitterness. It is then GI tagged and then sent for packaging.

At the packaging facility, the saffron is packed in one, two and five-gram bottles and sent for e-auctioning where the registered buyers bid for the spice and procure it. The money is then directly transferred to the account of the farmer.

In May, last year, the Kashmiri saffron was given the geographical indication (GI) tag to protect its exclusivity. The brand image of the Kashmiri Saffron had been hit after issues of adulteration and deliberate misbranding of the Iranian saffron as Kashmiri Saffron came to the fore, which made GI tagging very imperative. The GI registry then formally extended the GI Tag to the Kashmiri saffron in its journal.

The Other Version

While the facilities have been upgraded and the harvest has been good this year, G M Pampori, the founding president of the All Jammu and Kashmir Saffron Growers and Sellers Association said that one good harvest does not necessarily mark the turnaround in the sector.

“They are doing their bit but all the guidelines and the directions have to be followed by the farmers ultimately,” Pampori said while acknowledging the work done by the SKUAST and the Directorate of Agriculture. “We only keep talking, without substantiating it with actions. If we don’t employ the directions that are given to us by the university and the agriculture department, the results yielded won’t be positive.”

Earlier, Pampori pointed out the yield would be 10 kg per hectare. “Now the yield is barely that much.”

Pampori said that India is one of the largest consumers of saffron. It has a requirement of 40,000 kg of saffron every year because of its use in temples, religious functions, medicine, ice creams, and food processing.

“But Kashmir only produces 5000 kg saffron. It is but natural that someone will fill the deficit of 35000 kg and Iranian saffron has done that,” Pampori exclaimed. “Iranian saffron, although fast in colour pales in comparison to the strength, aroma and bitterness of the Kashmiri saffron. However, being three times cheaper than the Kashmiri saffron, it flooded the international and the Indian market to fill the vacuum created by the dearth of Kashmiri saffron.”

Pampori also flayed the farmers for adopting a laid-back approach. “The hoeing does not take place in the manner that it should. We have become dependent on the non-local workforce, whether it be apple or saffron harvest who are not skilled enough with regard to hoeing practices.”

He said that the manner in which fertilizers and pesticides need to be sprayed are not being done in the manner they ought to.

Climatic Conditions

Pampori bemoaned the changing climatic conditions. “Droughts, untimely rains, floods like we saw in 2014, what can we do with regard to that, ” he asked. “In those circumstances, it is out of our hands.”

Although Pampori during his prime lobbied extensively for the cause of Saffron growers, he also dubbed NSM as a failure. “There was a lot of excitement about it. But it has not been able to live up to its hype.”

Farming Practices

Professor Bashir Ahmad from SKUAST said that the reason behind the mixed results in the saffron production is because of the mixed response from the farmers.

Insisting that saffron fields, which have optimum corm availability and plant population are getting good production of saffron. Those who do not have optimum plant population are not getting good results.

“That is why there was a project that was started in 2010 to rejuvenate saffron production under NSM. They had analysed that the plant population was not optimum,” Ahmad said.

As per Professor Bashir, the soil health of the saffron farms has not been optimal. “Under NSM, we recommended nutrient management interventions to cure the deficiency in saffron fields.”

“Farmers either did not add nutrients at all and if they did, they would not add in a balanced manner. Those who used to add animal dung, used it wet. The dung should be rotten.”

He also expressed dismay over the way inter-culture operations are done. “They are mostly by outsiders who do not have the proper know-how. They don’t know where the saffron corms have actually been placed during sowing, at what depth, which cause apprehensions about corm damage which is the basic cause of diseases.” He said that if good care of farmlands is not taken, it could also impact the corm production for the next year.

Irrigation

Professor said that the saffron fields require irrigation in an optimum amount, at an optimum time. Every crop has a critical stage. From August 20, up till September 5 is deemed as the critical stage for the saffron crop. “If irrigation is provided to the crop during this period, the yield will have positive results,” he said. “We realized the importance of irrigation in saffron when we felt the effects of changing climatic scenarios.”

Global warming

Erratic weather patterns, untimely precipitation can cause damage to saffron by inducing corm rot.

“When there is enough moisture, along with temperature and humidity, the chances of corm rot increase. That is why we should ensure the drainage of the excess water,” The Professor said. “Always keep their fields moist and not muddy.”

Post harvesting

The SKUAST recommends that saffron flowers should be plucked unopened and stigma should be separated within 12 hours of picking and plucking.

Professor Bashir said that the three important enzymes crocin, picrocrocin and safranal are very volatile in nature. “If we keep it exposed for longer, owing to their volatility, they diffuse into the air, consequently decreasing the quality of saffron.”

Harvesting and separation of stigmas at proper and stimulated times and then dried as early as possible retain the quality of the spice. Traditional methods make use of sun and dry the stigma for 50-55 hours which causes a considerable loss in quality.

Intercropping

Since saffron is shade-loving crop, Professor Bashir said that intercropping with dwarf almond varieties could provide the necessary shade required by these crops when the temperatures get high.

“This guarantees two things,” he said. “One, that additional revenue through almonds second during high temperatures they give a cover and shade to the saffron field which reduces temperature by 1 to 1.5 degrees.”

Union Minister of State for Communication visits Indian International Trade Saffron Spice Park at Pampore. Pic: DIPR

Corm Cycle

Earlier, the farmers used to change the corms after 10–12-year cycles. However, Professor Bashir said that the corms should be uprooted after four years. “Every corm has a tendency to develop two to three corms from its mother corm. And every year the mother corm gets exhausted. When they remain in the field for longer times, they develop a greater number of corms.”

As a consequence, their size remains small. “We have observed that corms less than 8 grams don’t give flowers. It is also one of the reasons that many fields don’t give expected returns.”

Uprooting corms after every four years has economic benefits also. The corm sells at Rs 15000 rupees per quintal (100 kgs). “It can become a secondary source of revenue for the farmers and they can also extend the saffron area even in formerly non-traditional areas.”

“However, it all depends on whether the farmers fully adopt the practices,” he forewarned.

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