Saffron: A new high-value crop for underserved farmers in Southern US

Progress report for OS23-166

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2023: $29,233.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Rodale Institute
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Bharat Acharya
Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center
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Project Information


Crocus sativus L, commonly known as “saffron” is a perennial stem-less fall-blooming geophyte in the Irridaceae family. Renowned as "red gold," saffron stands as one of the most expensive spices by weight. Recent scientific interest in saffron has surged due to its potential therapeutic applications in combating cancer cells, Alzheimer's disease, and cardiovascular disorders. Similarly, the cultivation of saffron presents a promising avenue for smaller agricultural enterprises, offering opportunities for economic enhancement and sustainability through innovative production systems and diversified operations. However, saffron remains largely unexplored in the southern regions, particularly among underserved and small-scale producers. The primary objective of this project is to introduce saffron as a lucrative alternative high-value crop for such growers, aiming to bolster profitability and sustainability within their agricultural systems. To achieve this goal, saffron cultivation is being trialed under two production conditions—open field and low plastic tunnel—and two planting dates, early (September) and late (October) planting, at the Southeast Organic Center (SOC) research farm in Georgia. Preliminary results reveal a higher abundance of flowers within the low plastic tunnel compared to the open field. While flower quantities within the low plastic tunnel remained relatively consistent across different planting dates, late planting (i.e., October) exhibited higher flower counts in the open field during the year 2023. Moreover, a greater number of stigmas were recorded under low plastic tunnels, particularly from those planted in October. Future investigations will focus on evaluating the impact of processing methods, such as convection oven versus microwave, on saffron quality, including the concentration of crocin (C44H64O24), picrocrocin (C16H26O7), and safranal (C10H14O). Additionally, an enterprise budget will be developed to provide valuable insights into the economic viability of saffron cultivation in the southern states. The dissemination of project findings will be facilitated through an extensive outreach and education plan, ensuring that a broader audience can benefit from the knowledge generated.

Photo: Saffron flower at Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center, Georgia




Project Objectives:

This project showcases a novel and sustainable method to produce high-quality saffron in the southern region. Our focus is on organic production, but the results will be useful for no-organic producers as well. Our objectives are to:

  1. Evaluate different production systems and planting dates for saffron production in southern states
  2. Evaluate the best method of processing saffron stigma for small-scale producers (using oven vs. microwave) 
  3. Develop an enterprise budget to document the feasibility of saffron production in the region 




Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Wes Armstrong - Producer
  • Keisha Cameron - Producer


Materials and methods:


Field preparation and hand panting Saffron Open field and low-plastic tunnels for saffron production

In this reporting period, we summarize the activities undertaken at the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center (33.5503, -84.7399), Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, USA during 2023. The climate is humid sub-tropical, with an average annual precipitation of 132.8 cm, and mean annual temperature of 16.16 oC. The soil is classified as sandy loam soil with a 6-10% average slope, 0.75% soil organic matter and near-surface bulk density of 1.55 g cm-3.

A research trial was established to evaluate saffron production in two systems including an open field and low-plastic tunnels. Both production systems were tested side by side and compared to each other. Within each production system, the study comprised of two planting dates, early planting (Sept 22) and late planting (October 17). The saffron corms were strategically planted at a depth of 6 inches, with each treatment meticulously replicated four times.

During the blooming season in October, we conducted manual harvesting of saffron flowers, followed by the separation of stigmas from petals and stamens. Fresh yield data were recorded for each treatment. Subsequently, stigma samples underwent dehydration using a convection oven, with varying temperature and duration settings (100 °C for 10 minutes or 60 °C for 30 minutes). Additionally, a microwave oven was employed for a subset of samples under objective 2, employing a one-minute drying duration.

To determine the effect of the processing method on saffron quality, the concentration of crocin (C44H64O24), picrocrocin (C16H26O7), and safranal (C10H14O) which are the main apocarotenoids in stigmas will be measured in 2024 through a quantitative nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (qNMR) technique. For extracting the secondary metabolites of saffron, 100 mg of dehydrated saffron stigmas will be milled in a mortar. The ground saffron will be transferred to a TD-NMR glass tube, followed by adding a 1 ml DMSO-d6 solvent. The NMR spectra of the samples will be obtained in MNOVA, and the relative concentration of the secondary metabolites will be measured by performing the integration of target picks and compared among treatments.

Results from the field trial and lab study will be used to develop an enterprise budget for saffron production in 2025. This financial framework will meticulously document and analyze the economic feasibility of saffron production in the region. By assessing costs, inputs, and potential returns, the enterprise budget will serve as a compelling tool to demonstrate the viability and financial sustainability of introducing saffron into southern states' agriculture.

Research results and discussion:

Initial findings revealed a higher abundance of flowers within the low plastic tunnel compared to the open field. Furthermore, in the open field, late planting (i.e. October) exhibited elevated flower counts. Conversely, flower quantities within the low plastic tunnel remained relatively consistent across different planting dates.

Mean flower # Open-field Low plastic tunnels
Early planting 438 499
Late planting 479 491

In our research, we discovered a higher number of stigmas on saffron flowers grown under low plastic tunnels, particularly those planted in October.

Mean stigma (g) Open-field Low plastic tunnels
Early planting 12.79 14.898
Late planting 15.57 16.35

Harvested flowers were dried using a convection oven at 100 °C for 10 minutes or at 60 °C for 30 minutes. Samples were also dried using a microwave oven for one-minute. These samples will be analyzed in 2024 to assess the impact of processing methods on saffron quality [concentration of crocin (C44H64O24), picrocrocin (C16H26O7), and safranal (C10H14O)] through advanced techniques like quantitative nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Additionally, we will be developing a tailored enterprise budget for saffron production in the southern states, enhancing economic viability and sustainability at the end of the project.

Furthermore, the research plot displayed diverse butterflies and bumblebees, emphasizing increased pollinator activities, biodiversity, and aesthetic allure of the surroundings.


Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The project team has incorporated an extensive education and extension plan into this project, including public field days and tours, webinars, fact sheets, and research articles. Since 1999, the Rodale Institute website ( has served as a leading source of information for farmers implementing or exploring regenerative and organic agricultural practices. The website receives an average of 47,000 visits and more than 94,000 page views per month and will be used for disseminating research results. The Rodale Institute social media accounts have more than 35,000 followers across multiple platforms and will be used along with the electronic newsletter, which has more than 15,000 subscribers who identify themselves as farmers or agricultural professionals, to publicize events and new reports or findings.

We sent a newsletter in December 2023 that featured the saffron project at Southeast Organic Center.

  • The e-newsletter was sent on December 5 to 3,069 recipients. It received a 36% open rate, and a 2% click rate.
  • Social Media Posts on Friday November 3rd on Saffron included:


  • Reach- 3,450
  • Engagement- 218


  • Impressions: 3,370
  • Engagements: 99


  • Reach: 1,915
  • Engagement: 22

We also presented preliminary results and findings from this project at 2023 ASA Southern Branch meeting. This conference was attended by several students, researchers, and other food system professionals.

  • Acharya, B.S., Ghalehgolabbehbahani, A., 2024. Saffron as an alternative high value crop for small-scale farms in the Southern USA. ASA Southern Branch Meeting. Atlanta, GA, USA, Feb 05, 2024. (Oral presentation)

Our team is diligently working on a review paper on saffron, expected to be completed by the middle of this year.

  • Acharya et al., Hamido, S., Zinati, G., Ghalehgolabbehbahani, A., Bozzolo, A., Archer, L., Wendelberger, K., 2024. All you need to know about the golden spice: Saffron-A comprehensive review. (In Preparation)

During the "Transition to Organic" Symposium SOC tour in October 2023, approximately 10 farmers visited our research site and were provided with in-depth information regarding our saffron research efforts.

We will also be disseminating the findings to stakeholders via annual field days, tours, webinars, and regional conferences. A field day is being scheduled for September 2024 and is expected to attract a minimum of 80 in-person attendees. Rodale Institute has an Education Department to help facilitate the development of field days and other events and activities designed to reach farmers and the public.

This project will be incorporated into Field Day promotion and activities and allow visitors to visualize results in person. Data on the number of stakeholders who attend on-farm field days will be collected following each event. These data will be used to indicate the number of stakeholders that gain knowledge about this project.

Results from this project will also be used to develop factsheets and research articles which will be shared with growers through the Rodale Institute website.

 Arash and Sharma will be delivering two saffron webinars and hosting at least one saffron workshop in 2024. 

All outreach activities will primarily target underserved minority farmers in the southern region. The success of the project will be measured based on how minority farmers will adopt the project findings. This information will be collected via survey studies that we conduct at each extension event (e.g., field days, workshops, meetings, etc.). We aim to work with at least two individual underserved farmers to start growing saffron by the end of the project. The final reports will document the successful completion of these goals.

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Considering the prevailing financial challenges encountered by small family farms, innovative avenues are crucial for supplemental revenues and diversification of farming practices. Particularly in Southern states, the increase in the frequency and intensity of climate-related catastrophes, notably hurricanes, underscores the need for resilient and economically viable agricultural choices. Importantly, saffron emerges as a promising solution, being a high-value crop that requires minimal additional equipment, seamlessly integrating into existing farm machinery such as small tractors, tillers, and discs.

In this context, the cultivation of saffron holds strategic significance, offering a pathway towards sustainable agriculture while addressing the financial challenges faced by small farms. The findings from our project will enhance our understanding of saffron cultivation, paving the way for profitable ventures within the farming community. Importantly, saffron stands out as one of the most expensive spices globally when measured by weight, thus presenting a viable alternative income source for small-scale agricultural operations. Furthermore, the chemical composition of saffron, encompassing safranal, crocin, picrocrocin, as well as anthocyanins, flavonoids, vitamins, amino acids, proteins, starch, mineral matter, and gums, could have potential health and medicinal benefits. Studies have indicated its efficacy in treating various ailments ranging from cardiovascular diseases to stress, aging, skin conditions, sexual dysfunction, cancers, and cholesterol management. In future, we will be analyzing select chemical constituents present in saffron samples sourced from our plots, further enriching our understanding of their therapeutic potential.

While we will be evaluating commercial viability and health benefits in detail in days ahead, our saffron project has demonstrated positive impacts on environmental sustainability. Improved pollinator activities and enhanced biodiversity in our research plots were indicators of ecological services. Additionally, the aesthetic allure brought about by the vibrant saffron blooms contributed to the overall beauty of our research plots. In future, our project will comprehensively evaluate the diverse effects on economic, environmental, and social dimensions, thereby providing a holistic understanding of its sustainability implications for small-scale farmers. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.