Corné Liebenberg, the marketing director of Laeveld Agrochem (LAC), says, as a partner of Saffricon, they foresee a huge potential for saffron farming in South Africa. He believes it offers an ideal opportunity – not only for existing commercial farmers, but also for the development of small-scale emerging farmers – and, as such, will assist in addressing the country’s high unemployment.
“LAC wants to assist and uplift as far as possible, and the saffron venture offers many farmers that are currently under pressure an alternative option, whilst at the same time giving small-scale farmers an opportunity with solid prospects.
“It is ideal for niche farming – a huge growth area for the South African economy and something that LAC is very passionate about. The initial capital outlay is manageable, relatively little space is required (250m² can accommodate 15 000 corms), and Saffricon will assist with training to bring new farmers up to speed,” says Liebenberg.
“The outgrower (contract grower) system will uplift especially rural communities and give them a means to not only provide for their basic necessities, but also assist them to establish their own businesses with good growth possibilities. Concomitantly, the farmer does not have to wait very long for his return as is the case with many other crops. The above-ground plant growth and eventual harvesting of the flowers happen relatively quickly after the corm is planted.
The farming of saffron is also ideally suited to the South African climate – which, in the last few years, has gone through a harsh drought – as it requires much less water compared to many of the large traditional crops in South Africa,” adds Liebenberg.
Where South Africa’s most prevalent annual crops require roughly between 500-800mm of irrigation per season, saffron – a winter crop grown from March to October – needs between 250mm and 300mm per season.
Liebenberg continues: “Saffron can be grown in almost any environment, in conditions that are traditionally not ideally suited for most kinds of agriculture – such as the Northern Cape, which actually suits the cultivation of saffron. Hence it allows for the production of profitable vegetation from unprofitable soil.
Furthermore, not only is the saffron plant frost-resistant, but it is also protected from adverse weather elements like hail for a large part of the year because of its corms being underground. The latter, and the fact that the corms are not edible, will hopefully also keep it out of the hands of petty criminals looking for food.”
In South Africa, saffron (sometimes referred to as “red gold”) retails for as much as R250/g (or R250 000/kg). The hefty price tag is attributed to the labour-intensive harvesting methods followed – from picking the flowers to removing the threads – which is all done by hand. According to Engelbrecht, 150 000 flowers are needed for 1kg of saffron. “And there are three threads per flower, which means 450 000 (dried) threads are needed for 1kg of saffron. The return per hectare, in year three when production peaks, can vary between 1kg to 5kg.”