Saffron: Search For ‘Red Gold’ In Kashmir

Farmers harvesting Saffron flowers from their fields in a village near Pampore, Pulwama in Kashmir on November 07, 2023. KT Photo/Qazi Irshad
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SRINAGAR: The autumn has marked the beginning of harvest season for one of the costliest spices, saffron also described as “Red Gold” in Indian part of Kashmir with farmers picking up Saffron flowers.

The harvest season for Kashmir Saffron, known for its colour and flavour, begins towards the end of October and lasts till mid-November, a period during which the flowers are collected by the farmers.

The farmers around Pampore, known as Saffron town in Pulwama district of Kashmir Valley have started working in their field for harvest, which is only once in a year.

Saffron Development Corporation, a J&K government-owned body, has been in place for providing marketing support to farmers for getting better returns. With its high demand from different parts of India and other foreign countries, the output has been falling in the past few decades due to multiple factors including unprecedented floods in 2014, when farmers suffered extensive losses.

Children of Saffron farmers joining family members in collecting Saffron flowers from fields in a village near Pampore, Pulwama district of Kashmir on Tuesday, November 07, 2023. KT Photo/Qazi Irshad

Global importance

Saffron cultivation is typical in the Kashmir Valley. This plant is mentioned in the 5th century B.C. in Kashmiri records and is still part of the agricultural economy. Known over the world, Saffron became a cash crop for farmers resulting of a long traditional heritage.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that “Saffron cultivation has been facing severe challenges of sustainability and livelihood security with urgent need to adopt appropriate technologies, to address water scarcity, productivity loss and market volatilities.”

Women farmers engaged in harvesting Saffron flowers from their fields in Pampore town in Pulwama district of Kashmir on Tuesday, November 07, 2023. KT Photo/Qazi Irshad

Food and livelihood security

Saffron is not the only one crop cultivated in the Kashmir Valley. First of all, rice is the most important staple crop and maize the second-most important. Other important summer crops are millet and pulses. Wheat and barley are the chief spring crops. Many temperate fruits are grown with orchards in the Kashmir Valley orchards including almonds, apples, cherries, pears, peaches, and walnuts.

Of all the items, Kashmir is famous for its traditional heritage of Saffron. However, Saffron is also a cash crop. With respect to occupation, only one percent of Saffron growers are dependent on any other agriculture, while rest of the farmers have subsidiary source of income in addition to agriculture.

Saffron farmers harvesting crop from their fields in Pampore, Pulwama district of Kashmir on Tuesday, November 07, 2023. KT Photo/Qazi Irshad

Biodiversity and ecosystem functions

Practicing intercropping and agro-pastoralism, Saffron Kashmiri systems promote a high cultivated biodiversity: rice, maize, millet, lentils, wheat, barley, almonds, apples, cherries, rape seed, mustard, linseed, sesame, toria, and cottonseed etc. Moreover, sheep and goats are bred within this agricultural system providing a source of manure for the soils.

Concerning the Saffron, its cultivation has been under threat of extinction whereas it is as an endemic plant from the Region. Last but not least, farmers do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides which is an encouraging point for the wild flora, fauna and soils.

Knowledge systems and adapted technologies

During the differentiation of floral and vegetative buds takes place, growers prepare the corms for fresh plantation after digging followed by sorting and cleaning to rejuvenate their saffron crop. In Kashmir, saffron is traditionally cultivated in September by planting saffron corms after plough by hand dropping as a mixture of grades under traditional system for longer economic benefits. 

In existing fields, the soil is hoed twice in June and September to facilitate aeration to the corms and to allow corm sprouts to emerge out of soil. Saffron fields are attended for control of rodents during vegetative phase (November to May) and dry foliage is harvested in May as fodder for livestock. Saffron is generally followed with linseed/oats/wheat under crop rotation. However, in some villages, Rajma/lentil (Red Kidney Beans) is also being cultivated.

Farmers harvesting Saffron flowers in their fields in a village near Pampore, Pulwama district of Kashmir on Tuesday, November 07, 2023. KT Photo/Qazi Irshad

Cultures, value systems and social organizations

Saffron is part of the cultural heritage of the Region, according to the Kashmiri legends; saffron was brought to the region by two Sufi ascetics, Khawaja Masood Wali. Saffron has traditionally been associated with the famous Kashmiri cuisine, its medicinal values and the rich cultural heritage of Kashmir. Besides, during the plucking of the blossoms, the lilt of women voices wafts through the air as they sing their folk songs.

Looking at the social organization, Kashmiri women are behind the whole saffron story. They till the soil, and, most importantly, pick and gently dry the flowers. Once dried, tossed and sorted, it is time for the flowers to be handed over to the men folk. Stripping away the insides of the flowers, the men grade the saffron, now ready to be packed in moisture-proof containers.

Remarkable landscapes, Land and Water resources management features

Saffron cultivation has really shaped the landscape of Kashmir Region. This shape can be seen effectively when saffron flowers are opened and all the view of the landscape is purple. Besides, Pampore Karewa soil are specially made as square beds. Each bed measures l.5m and is provided with narrow trench on all sides to prevent the accumulation of water.

Agriculture Science Support

With support from the federal government in India, agriculture institutions in Kashmir have been doing pioneering research in the field of Saffron to improve its variety and increase its output during the past many decades. One of them with particular reference is revival of Saffron Research Project, which aimed at helping and training the farmers in best agriculture practices to enhance its quality and production.

Market Competition

Saffron production in Afghanistan, Iran, Switzerland and some Central Asians countries has been on the increase and providing market competition to Kashmir Saffron. The loss of production in some of these countries has been a gain for those which witnessed bumper output in the past few decades. Captive market within India and some adjoining countries, where it finds its use in medicines and dyes, has been gainful for Kashmir Valley farmers.