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County entrepreneurs may be Ontario’s first saffron farmers

Ketha and Jennifer

Ketha and Jennifer

By Kathy Felkar

Jennifer Gaddes and Ketha Gillespie, are a mother daughter duo from Northport who are, to the best of their knowledge, Ontario’s first saffron farmers.

Saffron is a unique spice otherwise known as the “red gold” Jennifer hopes will become her retirement fund.

She says that because saffron is the world’s most expensive spice due to its labour-intensive harvesting, high quality saffron will always be in demand.

Used as a traditional Middle Eastern cooking spice, with roots back to medieval times, most of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran. However, after attending a workshop at the Pur Safran farm in ST-Elie-de-Caxton, Quebec, Jennifer and Ketha believed they could grow the delicate crocuses in Prince Edward County.

The spice comes from the stigmata of the saffron crocus or “crocus sativas”. Each flower has three brilliant red stigmata or “threads” that are connected together at the base of the flower.

When harvested by hand, Jennifer must carefully pick the lovely, purple flower before it completely opens to the fall sun and pluck out the bright crimson threads without breaking their connection.

saffron-crocusShe picks early each morning before her day job, to produce the highest quality saffron. Next she will dry the threads to 80 per cent humidity and then store in a dark, glass jar.

Jennifer is in her third year, second harvest. As the saffron crocus is an autumn flowering plant and its bulb multiples itself every year, she is developing a long-term plan. She hopes to have her farm organically certified and after four years she will have four times the number of bulbs that she had purchased from Quebec.

Every year she must add two inches of soil on her rows as a “corm” develops on top of the original bulb rather than around the original bulb. In four years, she will dig up her bulbs, divide them and replant them in a new patch.
The original patch cannot be used for eight years so long-term planning is important.

The plants need a good watering in March and then they lay dormant in the summer needing little care other than weeding. During October and November, the tiny flowers poke up along her furrows and harvesting begins.

During the winter, the plants can survive under the snow and Jennifer is trying a few methods to protect them from the bitter cold of February.

Next year, the two plan to purchase a precision scale to weigh their harvest of dried saffron threads before sending them away to be graded. At this time, Quebec has the ability to grade the spice for flavor, aroma, and colour. Because Saffron is the most “counterfeited” spice in the world, standards are set to detect fraud.

It is known throughout the industry that some producers have added beetroot, pomegranate or red dyed silk fibres or the yellow tasteless stamens to the spice, mixed different grades of saffron together, doused the fibres in honey or vegetable oil to add weight or used a totally different plant.

“There is twice as much saffron sold each year than is actually grown,” notes Jennifer, adding there is a risk of viruses, bacteria, fungus and squirrels digging up the bulbs.

But they are determined to work hard to make Ontario’s first saffron farm a reality.

A full gram of quality saffron costs about $80 and their projection is that in years to come, they will be making a respectable income from their project. They have already contacted other County businesses and are thinking of Saffron Honey and Saffron Mustard.

Filed Under: Featured ArticlesWhat's To Eat?

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  1. Samantha says:

    Well, this is a feel good story. Good luck to Jennifer and Ketha.

  2. Paul says:

    Good luck Ladies, its always good to read a good article about folks who are willing to give something a shot I hope it goes well….

  3. Cheryl Anderson says:

    Great story. Best wishes to Jennifer and Ketha on this new enterprise – and a County and Ontario first!

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