Inefficient marketing and outmoded technologies can be the nemesis of any crop — regardless of its money-spinning potential. Saffron, a prized product of Jammu and Kashmir, is a typical case in point. Despite being one of the world’s costliest spices with a high demand in domestic and foreign markets, its cultivation has been on the decline.
Thanks to a virtual monopoly of brokers and a long chain of intermediaries in marketing it coupled with sliding crop productivity, saffron farming has become a losing concern for farmers, forcing them to switch to other crops. Consequently, the area under saffron has steadily shrunk from over 5,700 hectares in the mid-1990s to around 3,200 hectares. Likewise, the average crop yield has dropped from 3.1 kg per hectare to merely 2.5 kg.
Farmers have lost interest in investing in new production and post-harvest management technologies or yield-enhancing inputs because of ebbing returns. The younger generations, in particular, have become disillusioned with the crop that their ancestors grew for centuries in the militancy-ridden state’s saffron bowl of Pulwama, Budgam, Srinagar and Kishtiwar districts.
Saffron experts of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) have identified some critical agronomic flaws in traditional saffron farming that have turned most saffron fields senile. One, farmers continue to use the age-old system of a long cropping cycle, planting fresh corms (seeding material) once in 15 years or so. Besides, they normally use ungraded corms of indifferent quality. Such a long cropping cycle encouraged plant diseases, notably the corm rot fungal infection, to persist and spread.
Moreover, even after plucking the flowers, their stigmas (which constitute saffron strands) are not separated and processed immediately, which results in quality deterioration and recovery loss. The outdated methods of packing the stigmas, too, contribute to quality loss. Above all, brokers and middlemen exploit growers in a wholly unorganised and non-transparent market, and deny them a fair share of the prices paid by consumers.
A major initiative to rehabilitate saffron cultivation began in 2009 under the National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. This project, implemented by SKUAST in cooperation with the Indian Institute of Integrated Medicines, has focused on the complete value chain, from production to consumption, encompassing crop agronomy, post-harvesting handling and marketing. As a result, saffron yields and profits have spurted significantly, restoring farmers’ faith in the crop. Though the project was originally scheduled to finish in June this year, it has been extended for two years in view of its noteworthy outcome.
Under NAIP, farmers are being advised to use good quality corms, weighing over eight grams each, and treat them with recommended chemicals before planting. The distance between rows and plants should be 20 cm and 10 cm to ensure optimum plant density. This technology has helped raise saffron productivity from 2.5 kg a hectare to as much as 6.37 kg, according to the project leader F A Nehvi. An overall investment of Rs 9,28,560 per hectare can enable farmers to earn about Rs 37,06,440 in four years, which is the recommended shortened crop cycle. About 2,400 farmers have already adopted this technology. They are expected to harvest nearly 10 tonnes of saffron from the total 1,656 hectare area in four years, pocketing a gross income of over Rs 15.84 crore. In contrast, the traditional technology would have resulted in a production of only 4.14 tonnes of saffron valued at merely Rs 9.63 crore from the same land. For marketing the produce, NAIP has helped saffron cultivators form cooperatives societies or associations.
Three such cooperatives that have already come up have been linked with saffron marketing companies for domestic sales and export. A pack house has also been set up for drying, processing, and packing saffron on NAIP’s recommendations. With the National Saffron Mission, too, getting active in promoting saffron cultivation on these lines, a saffron revolution seems in the offing in Jammu and Kashmir.