Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Adding spice to new rural life

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A life-changing medical event thrust a townie couple into saffron growing and other intensive horticulture. Tim Fulton reports.
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Geoff and Jude Slater were happily living in Christchurch in January 2013 when Jude suffered a severe stroke that nearly took her life and forced her into nine months of rehab.

For the best part of 30 years Geoff’s work revolved mainly around the transport industry and civil construction.

Jude now needed more time with him as she regained her mobility so they decided to sell up and buy a lifestyle block.

Wanting to grow saffron the couple inspected 12 properties in Waimakariri District. Their essential requirement was free-draining soil.

Geoff didn’t worry about using a soil consultant to size up the merit of the various blocks. 

“I just dug a hole and had a look myself when I had time.”

After two or three visits they picked out 4ha at West Eyreton on light topsoil bordering Waimakariri River. 

“It just seemed ideal.”

The Southland-raised couple are accustomed to hard work and have an in-built feel for country life. Geoff is originally from the Caitlins and Jude from Otautau.

“We’d been in Christchurch for about 30 years but got side-tracked by the big smoke, as you do.”

Taking the North Canterbury property allowed the pair to return to their rural roots. 

With horticulture in mind they started Canterbury Saffron, growing the flower and selling the spice from an initial stock of 6000 corms they bought from a nearby grower.

Geoff said they would have bought 20,000 corms immediately if it had been affordable but now, through plant multiplication, they have about 100,000 corms.

About 170,000 corms produce a kilogram of saffron. 

The Slaters expect this growing season, their fourth, they will have between half and three quarters of a kilo of saffron. And next year it should be that milestone 1kg.

“Each corm we originally planted is the mother corm. We plant them in January and she’ll produce flowers in April. Then, after the flowering, she’ll start producing daughters. The daughters grow up to a state where they’ll produce flowers and start producing daughters.”

A single corm can produce five to eight daughters at a time.

Like any breeding programme, saffron tends to be only as good as the original stock. And growers have to be on top of the soil conditions because rot is a killer.

Geoff has been using a stone-burier and a row-former to ensure his plants sit high and dry, well-spaced on the best soil. The other major consideration is protecting plants and soil from inadvertent contamination. The immediate West Eyreton/Eyrewell area is a medley of large-scale blocks, lifestyle blocks and other horticultural enterprises so spray drift is always a possibility.

For general plant health Geoff does whatever he can to feed organic matter to the crop. It’s not an organic-certified business but he would like it to be one day.

For now, though, they extract a premium for their saffron from excellent test results.

The Slaters’ saffron income is variable – last year they sold corms when they had zero cashflow – but business is building. 

In New Zealand the couple have home gardeners wanting corms for the pleasure of their own spice. On the export side the Slaters are working with their saffron-growing neighbour, who found them a market in Tasmania. The product is processed and shipped across the Tasman.

“That’s all we do at the moment because it’s guaranteed income.” 

There are risks attached to being focused on a single offshore market, like losing contracts in a single swoop, but so far it’s all hanging together.

Australia does have some growers itself, including some who follow the Slaters on a Facebook page from Orange, near Sydney, but much of the country is too hot and not frosty enough for saffron.

Geoff says the biggest demand for his saffron is from overseas but that’s not where the money is.

A favourable set of test results for their saffron should now allow them to promote their product to chefs in local restaurants. In a tasty twist their offering will include saffron chocolates.

Geoff’s sister also has a row of saffron on the block, hoping to make use of it as a cosmetics ingredient.

Geoff readily accepts planting, growing and retailing saffron is a game of patience. It can be labour-intensive, especially at picking time, though he is trying to make the job as mechanical as possible.

He’s naturally an innovator. 

Last year he started growing kumara leaf for tea. To grow a kumara crop he stores them, cuts them in half and grows the slips. When the slips are large enough he cuts them off and plants them. 

He also grows Myoga ginger, a deciduous herbaceous perennial native to Japan, China and the southern part of Korea. Only its edible flower buds and flavoured shoots are used in cooking and a Japanese buyer has expressed interest in the product.

How it’s used

Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus.

The vivid crimson stigmas called threads are collected and dried to be used as a seasoning and colouring agent. 

In food saffron threads can be added to dishes whole or ground into powder. Saffron can be soaked in warm water or another liquid to soften then added with the liquid to cooking. It can be added to savoury foods like rice and chicken or to desserts like custards and cakes.

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