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As traditional saffron cultivation in Kashmir dips and faces challenges, indoor farming offers hope

Kashmir, the world’s second-largest producer of saffron, has faced a decline in saffron cultivation over the past two decades. Some farmers in the region are experimenting with indoor saffron farming which uses lesser water and chemicals, offers greater control over environmental conditions and minimises crop vulnerability to extreme weather conditions. Indoor farming currently yields less than traditional methods, but farmers remain hopeful. They believe this is just the beginning and with time and further refinement, the yield from indoor farming will increase. This detailed report is by Hirra Azmat 

Abdul Majeed Wani, a seasoned farmer from Shaar-i-Shalli Village in Pampore town in South Kashmir, knows the art of preserving saffron corms (saffron bulbs). He is saving them for his next cycle of indoor saffron farming. The delicate saffron bulbs give rise to the fall-flowering purple Crocus sativus, which yields the world’s most expensive spice, saffron, known as ‘red gold’ for its value. With traditional saffron farming facing challenges such as erratic weather and low yields, the indoor cultivation techniques offer higher productivity, reduced labour and control over environmental conditions, presenting a viable solution to revive saffron farming in Kashmir.

Unlike many crops that propagate through seeds, saffron, locally known as koung, reproduces via corms, requiring careful management for continuity. Saffron farmers plant the smaller (less than six grams) corms, and these multiply inside the soil, leading to the production of more corms, including bigger ones that are eventually used for saffron production. Saffron cultivation demands specific conditions, such as controlled climates and precise timing for harvest. Walking through the densely sown planting material on his land, Wani explained, “These saffron corms are presently in a vegetative phase (characterised by growth of leaves) and, if properly nurtured, are a key component in the indoor saffron farming techniques.” With 40 years of experience in traditional saffron farming, Wani has been practicing indoor cultivation since 2021 and is happy to continue with it. He was able to produce a good yield in a small room with a controlled environment, without worrying about irregular weather and water shortages that are challenges when growing the crop in fields.

A ray of hope 
Kashmir is the world’s second-largest saffron-producing region after Iran and the only place in India where saffron is cultivated. Kashmiri saffron is renowned for its high quality, and in 2020, it was granted a Geographical Indication (GI) tag to protect its unique status. However, saffron production in Kashmir has dropped significantly, with a 68 per cent decline over the past two decades. Data from the Agricultural Department shows that the area under saffron cultivation decreased from 5,707 hectares in 1996-97 to 2,387.71 hectares in 2018-19. Similarly, the production of saffron has fallen from 15.95 metric tonnes in the 1990s to just 2.6 metric tonnes in 2023-24.

Multi-tier racks and trays placed in a room. Indoor farming offers water savings and climate control.

Saffron was once widely cultivated in the Pulwama District, but various factors, including low yields and increased urbanisation, have prompted farmers to switch to higher-yielding crops such as apples and walnuts. Today, saffron cultivation is confined mainly to Pampore and its surrounding areas. Khalid Hussain Bhat, assistant professor at the Faculty of Horticulture, SKUAST (Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology), Kashmir, attributes the decline in saffron production to erratic weather and a lack of proper irrigation systems. One significant factor contributing to the decline is the reliance on traditional farming methods. Niyaz A. Dar, assistant professor at the Advance Research Station for Saffron & Seed Spices, SKUAST-Kashmir, explains that key factors such as irrigation, seed grade (corm), and pest and rodent management are crucial for higher saffron yields, yet traditional farmers often overlook these aspects, resulting in lower yields.

To address the challenges, SKUAST-Kashmir introduced the concept of indoor saffron farming in 2018, aiming to boost productivity and improve saffron quality using scientific methods. Indoor farming reduces water and chemical usage, offers better control over environmental conditions, and requires less labour. Funded by NABARD, this three-year project (2021 to 2024) has a budget of Rs. 6.0-6.2 lakhs, covering planting material and equipment for five demonstration trials. Requesting anonymity, an official at SKUAST, Kashmir, told Mongabay India.

Key differences
Saffron is a perennial crop that lasts about 10-15 years after sowing. Traditionally, farmers start preparing the land one year before sowing the corms. The initial stage involves a significant amount of labour, with two sowing cycles followed by demarcation and bed preparation. Traditional saffron farming begins with land preparation on elevated table lands known as wudar in Kashmiri. Given saffron’s perennial nature, it requires eight to nine cycles of deep land preparation before planting saffron corms (seeds). These corms vary in size from 1 to 20 grams: those up to six grams are used for multiplication, while those weighing seven grams and above are needed for flower production.

“Sowing typically occurs from July to August, with saffron corms planted with a gap of four to six centimetres between them,” explains Niyaz, a saffron farming expert. Flowering begins in late October, followed by leaf emergence. While it may seem that nothing is happening during this period, the corms are actually multiplying and developing for the next cropping season. Niyaz adds that flowering generally starts around October 25th and can continue until November 10th, depending on favourable conditions such as adequate rainfall and irrigation. “Flowers are usually harvested around midday, and it’s crucial to separate the stigma—the female part of the flower containing the valuable red filaments, often called ‘red gold’—within 12 hours of picking to avoid post-harvest losses,” he says.

Indoor saffron farming offers an alternative suitable for farmers with small landholdings. It requires corms weighing eight grams or more and allows for flower cultivation in compact spaces with controlled conditions. With the right setup, a 20 ft x 20 ft structure can yield 900-1100 grams of saffron. The indoor approach begins with corms placed in trays installed in vertical multi-tier racks in an aeroponic system. The room is kept dark for about 90 to 100 days to promote the physiological changes needed for sprouting and flowering, achieved by covering windows with black cloth or cardboard. After the 100-day mark, lighting is turned on to stimulate flower opening. Harvesting from indoor setups takes place from October to November 10th. Afterward, the corms are moved to open field soil for a chilling phase, following an ultra-high-density module with no gaps between them. “The corms need about 1,100 hours of chilling to ensure they multiply and remain viable for the next year’s crop,” Niyaz concludes.

A farmer picking flower in indoor cultivation.

Early experiences
According to figures from the saffron station, around five farmers in Pampore and Budgam Districts have adopted the indoor farming model under a NABARD Project. Wani, who started indoor cultivation in 2021, began with five quintals of saffron corms in a single room using 40 racks. The corms cost around Rs 40,000 per quintal. “The trays and racks were provided by SKUAST-Kashmir, along with two quintals of saffron corms for a 400-square-foot area. In the first year, the output was limited because we were in an experimental phase. By the second year, we gained experience and conducted thorough grading of the corms, resulting in better yields,” Wani explained.

In 2023, Wani compared the results from traditional and indoor cultivation. In the traditional method, he had sown five quintals of corms on his 1.25-acre (10-kanal) land and yielded 1.2 kg of saffron. One gram of saffron sells for Rs 250. “In indoor cultivation, I used the same quantity of corms with 40 racks and produced 600 grams of saffron. There was no wastage, and it required less labour. Traditional farming requires constant attention, rodent protection, and irrigation. Additionally, each corm in indoor farming can produce up to five flowers at once, unlike the one to two flowers typically produced in traditional farming,” Wani elaborated.

Sharing his experience with indoor farming, Ali Mohammad from Charar-e-Sharief in Budgam District said that he had been involved in saffron farming since 2002, owning 2.5 acres (20 kanal) of land, with 0.88 acres of high-density apple orchards and 0.25 acres for saffron cultivation. “Budgam District used to be the second largest wudar (uplands or karewas). However, in 2014, our crops faced damage from porcupine invasion, leading to a decline in saffron production and decreased interest in traditional cultivation among farmers,” he said. Mohammad’s interest in saffron spiked when he heard about indoor cultivation and decided to give it a try. “I approached the saffron station at Pampore and was given an on-farm trial, along with some trays and racks. I began in 2023 with one quintal of saffron corms placed in 128 trays within a 10ft x 10ft room. I got a yield of 28 grams of saffron, while traditionally cultivating one quintal across .250 acre (two kanals) yielded more than 150 grams in the same year,” he explained.

Mohammad mentioned that a farmer could begin with 30 to 40 kg of saffron corms when adopting the indoor model, though it’s still in the experimental stage. “Post-harvest, the corms must be sown back in the soil in the field to undergo the necessary cold shock for multiplication. There is a need for technology that allows corm multiplication indoors,” he added. Regarding concerns about lower income from indoor farming, the president of the Saffron Growers Association, Abdul Majid Wani, stated that indoor cultivation has not yet reached its full potential, as it remains in its experimental phase. However, he noted that with technological advancements, indoor cultivation holds great promise. Indoor farming can provide protection against adverse climate effects, reduce labour requirements, and be easier to maintain.

Long way to go
Umar Manzoor, CEO of Farmers Producers Company, Pampore, explained that indoor saffron farming technology is temperature-resilient, reducing the risk of crop failure. However, the main difficulty lies in corm growth, a critical component in saffron cultivation. “While flower cultivation is possible in any state, the real challenge comes after flowering when the seed undergoes vegetative reproduction. That stage is still a challenge, and if scientists can address it, then indoor saffron farming could become highly successful. But for now, it’s still in an experimental phase,” Manzoor said. He added, “Farmers need to understand the entire cycle of saffron corms and the technical details involved. Only then can they fully harness the potential of indoor farming.”

Facing the challenge of corm protection, a local farmer from Pampore (who wished to remain anonymous) noted that corm multiplication is crucial for sustaining indoor saffron farming. “I couldn’t safeguard the corms, which is why I discontinued this farming method,” he said. When asked about NABARD’s support, Manzoor outlined the requirements for indoor cultivation. A new farmer needs to invest in saffron corms in the first year, with a quintal (100 kg) costing around Rs 40,000. Farmers can start with a quintal or even a smaller quantity. Multi-tier racks and trays are also needed, costing between Rs 4,000 and Rs. 5,000. Labour costs are estimated at Rs 10,000 to Rs. 15,000, bringing the total investment to around Rs 100,000.

Thus, individual farmers can initiate indoor saffron farming on their own, Manzoor explained. Wani mentioned that the association is in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding with an organisation based out of Kashmir, aiming to invest about Rs 200 million in indoor saffron farming. “They’ll be arriving this month (April) to set up a vertical farming structure using 125 quintals of saffron corms. Their goal is to achieve a yield ten times greater than traditional saffron farming, using advanced Israeli technology. The project will cover an area of 235 feet,” Wani explained.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/ india.mongabay.com)

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