The world’s costliest spice, saffron, is set to find new fields for cultivation in India. From newly formed Union Territory of Ladakh to Bharmour in Himachal Pradesh and from areas in Uttarakhand to HP Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur’s backyard of Seraj Valley, Palampur-based Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology is experimenting with cultivation of saffron crop and bulbs, called corms.
Further trials are on after encouraging results at a number of places in these areas. Buoyed by this, the Himachal Pradesh Agriculture Department is also planning to start pilot projects for farmers to grow saffron in Lahaul and Spiti and in Seraj Valley.
Currently in India, saffron crop is grown in pockets of Kashmir like Pampore and Kishtwar. As per CSIR-IHBT, the annual demand of the saffron in India is 100 tonnes per year, but its average production is about 6-7 tonnes per year. To meet this demand, saffron is imported from countries like Iran and Afghanistan. As per CSIR-IHBT Principal Scientist Dr Rakesh Kumar to meet there was good potential to cultivate saffron crops in other areas with similar climatic conditions of cold and dry weather which suit the crop.
This season, as per CSIR-IHBT, saffron was grown in an area of around 2,825 hectares in Kashmir. The CSIR-IHBT and Ladakh Farmers and Producers Co-operative Limited (LFPCL) have entered into an MoU to grow saffron in Ladakh.
“The trials have been very successful in Ladakh. This was our first year of trial. You need to have three consecutive successful crops to ensure that the area is fit for saffron cultivation. Given the encouraging results this year, we are hopeful that areas in Ladakh are suitable for saffron cultivation,” CSIR-IHBT Director Dr Sanjay Kumar told The Indian Express.
“We will increase the area under saffron gradually in Ladakh and plan to grow the crop in an area of 500 hectares,” said Dr Kumar, adding that the crop was sown when Ladakh was part of Jammu and Kashmir state and matured successfully days before there was notification to declare Ladakh as Union Territory.
LFPCL chief executive officer M L Mantoo said, “50 kg of bulbs were sown and there was almost 100 per cent germination and flowering. The crop had very long stigmas (threads) of saffron, a parameter which defines good quality.”
“We may grow it on 5,000 acres also, but it depends upon the quantum of planting material we can get. We are planning to set up a dedicated tissue culture laboratory in association with CSIR-IHBT in Himachal Pradesh to produce corms,” said Mantoo.
The CSIR-IHBT is already using tissue culture technology for production of disease free, healthy and flowering sized corms in the trials it has been conducting in what it calls “non-traditional areas of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Leh, North East and hilly regions of Tamil Nadu”.
The areas were chosen after feeding a set of parameters of saffron growing areas in the world. The parameters like climate, latitude. longitude, soil data, morphological data were fed into a modelling method which then returned the results with names of the areas having similar parameters.
“The data was fed in ecological niche modelling to find the similar places where saffron could be grown,” said CSIR-IHBT director Dr Sanjay Kumar.
CSIR-IHBT Principal Scientist Dr Rakesh Kumar said the modelling results categorised the places into high probability, medium probability and low probability. He said the areas in North East were low probability and experimentation there also pointed towards this.
In Bharmour area of Himachal Pradesh, where trials were carried out on 250 square meters of saffron, the results of consecutive three years have shown that it is suitable place to cultivate saffron, said Dr Rakesh. “Similarly, results have been good in a village in Sangla Valley where trials are on,” he added. Trials are also on in Jhanjeali and Bakshial areas of Seraj Valley. CSIR-IHBT has also been growing saffron corms in Palampur and Jogindernagar areas. “Rains are not good for corms. So before the onset of rains we uproot the corms and once rain months are over we sow these again in areas in Palampur and Jogindernagar,” said Dr Rakesh Kumar.
CSIR-IHBT says if farmers take up in the areas identified for saffron cultivation, they stand to make good profits. On the basis of five year average, as per CSIR-IHBT, the cost of cultivation of saffron per hectare per year was Rs 1.25 lakh and gross returns Rs 6.25 lakh, translating into net returns of Rs 5 lakh.
Himachal Pradesh Agriculture Director Rakesh Kumar Kondal said following successful trials of saffron cultivation in the state, the department will start pilot projects for farmers next season. “We will start pilot projects in Lahaul and Spiti and in Bakshial area of Seraj Valley,” added Kondal.