While this small-scale, low-tech approach may have supported saffron production over the past few decades, it has also brought it to the brink of extinction.
“We are constrained by the characteristics of the sector itself,” says Fernandez. “What we’re trying to do now is to make a change and a transition so that we don’t get left behind in this folk tradition where I think we are right now. As growers, we cannot grow enough saffron to meet our customers’ year-round demand, which means it’s an unstable business.”
Production is unpredictable because the bulbous corms from which crocuses grow are susceptible to fungi and very sensitive to temperature changes. In recent years, 200 producers whose saffron has protected origin status have seen what the climate emergency is doing to their crops.
Warmer temperatures and less rainfall mean flowering comes later and later each year as the plants wait for things to cool down. Yields also fluctuate. The average harvest in 2015 was about 650 kg, peaking in 2018 at 915 kg. Since then, there has been a gradual decrease: 750 kg in 2019, 625 kg in 2020 and 345 kg in 2021.
“While the yield is hard to predict because every night you get a new bloom, the numbers we have show that yields are declining,” says Fernandez. “Last year we got 3.5 kilograms per hectare when the normal yield is 7 to 9 kilograms.”
Even though growers in La Mancha can sell saffron to their customers for €5,000 per kilo, profits are being squeezed by planting the corms at €25,000 per hectare and yields are not guaranteed due to threats posed by fungus and higher temperatures.
The sharp drop in production in Spain has also sent buyers to foreign competitors who have the capacity to meet demand.
That is why Fernández and his fellow producers are asking the regional government of Castile-La Mancha to fund a strategic plan of 18.5 million euros to preserve and develop the saffron sector.
They argue that proper funding and research could lead to a fivefold increase in production and land use within the next five years. Healthy, pathogen-free corms can be bought in Holland or even grown in vitro like garlic, they say.
Add to that mechanization that would allow robots to extract threads from flowers, and Fernandez sees no reason why 5,000 hectares of crocuses couldn’t produce 25 metric tons of saffron in 10 years.
The regional government of Castile La Mancha says it is committed to helping growers find solutions to the problems they face and showcase a protected culture. It says that funds are available to attract more young people to the sector and to help farmers mechanize and modernize their harvests.
For now, however, the collection and processing of saffron in the area follows its ancient rhythms. After the morning’s harvest is picked and brought in wicker baskets to a small warehouse, half a dozen women, including Fernandez’s mother, Caridad Segovia, put on overalls and hair nets and sit around a long table to monda, or separate the stigma and style from the petals. They chat while they work, exercising finger movements regardless of their gaze. By the end mondatheir fingers will be colored yellow.
For Segovia and her friends, saffron is a “social and familial spice” whose collection and sorting brings society together.
“If it wasn’t for the saffron, we wouldn’t be here together,” she says. “Everyone can tell here about their problems or their joys. It helps us to help each other. It’s a kind of therapy where people can talk and ask for help if they need it.”
Despite the hairnet, overalls, and sterile warehouse interior, the scene feels timeless. Looking at this, Carlos Fernandez wonders how long this will last.
“If temperatures keep rising like they are now, if we don’t address the health issues that corms have that are really cutting back on production, and if we don’t professionalize the sector, it’s quite clear that it’s only a matter of time. ,” He says.
“A lot of producers are in their 70s now, and when they stop, their kids won’t take over and screw their backs when they could be doing office work. It’s not viable.”