While this small-scale, low-tech approach may have kept saffron production alive over the past few decades, it has also brought it to the brink of extinction.
“We’re held back by the very nature of the industry itself,” Fernández said. “What we’re trying to do now is bring about change and transition so we don’t fall behind in this folk tradition, and I think that’s where we are now. .As a producer, we cannot grow enough saffron throughout the year to satisfy our customers, which means it is not a stable business.”
Production is unpredictable because the bulbous bulbs on which crocus grows are susceptible to fungal infection and are very sensitive to temperature changes. In recent years, the 200 saffron producers with Protected Designation of Origin status have seen the effects of the climate emergency on their crops.
Warmer temperatures and less rainfall mean flowering is getting later and later each year as the plants wait for the weather to cool. Yields are also fluctuating. Production averaged around 650kg in 2015, rising to a peak of 915kg in 2018. Since then, the weight has gradually dropped – 750kg in 2019, 625kg in 2020 and 345kg in 2021.
“While this is a difficult crop to predict, our data suggest that yields are declining as the timing of flowering varies each night,” Fernandez said. “Last year, when the normal yield was 7 to 9 kilograms, we were producing 3.5 kilograms per hectare.”
While growers in La Mancha can sell saffron to buyers for 5,000 euros per kilo, profits are hampered by the threat of fungus and heat, the cost of sowing bulbs at 25,000 euros per hectare, and yields not guaranteed. erosion.
Plummeting production in Spain has also prompted buyers to turn to overseas competitors that can meet demand.
All of this is why Fernández and his growing partners have asked the regional government of Castile-La Mancha to fund an 18.5 million euro strategic plan to save and grow the saffron industry.
They argue that proper funding and research could drive a fivefold increase in production and land use over the next five years. Healthy, pathogen-free bulbs can be purchased from the Netherlands, or they can even be grown in vitro like garlic, they say.
Add to that the mechanization that allows robots to extract the threads from the flowers, and Fernández sees no reason for 5,000 hectares of crocus to produce 25 metric tons of saffron in 10 years.
The regional government of Castilla La-Mancha said it is committed to helping growers find solutions to the difficulties they face and showcasing protected crops. It said the funds could be used to attract more young people to the industry and help farmers mechanize and modernize their harvests.
For now, however, the harvesting and processing of saffron in the region follows its ancient rhythms.After the morning’s crop was harvested and transported in wicker baskets to a small warehouse, six women — including Fernandez’s mother, Caridad Segovia — donned overalls and hairnets and sat around a long table. waiting at the table secular, or separate the stigma and style from the petals. They chat while they work, practicing finger movements independently of their eyes.by the end of the year seculartheir fingers will be dyed yellow.
For Segovia and her friends, saffron is a “social and domestic spice” whose picking and sorting binds communities together.
“Without saffron, we wouldn’t be together as we are,” she said. “It’s a place where everyone can talk about their problems or their well-being. It helps us help each other. It’s a therapy where people can talk and ask for help when they need it.”
Despite the hairnets, overalls, and sterile warehouse interiors, the scene is eerily timeless. Carlos Fernández watched, wondering how long it would last.
“If the temperature continues to rise, if we don’t address the health of the bulbs, that will really reduce production, if we don’t professionalize the industry, then obviously it’s only a matter of time,” he said.
“There are a lot of producers now who are over 70 and when they stop working, their kids don’t take over and screw up their jobs when they could be doing office work. It’s just not feasible.”
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