TORBAT HEIDARIE, Iran – This year’s harvest of saffron, one Iran’s stellar products that is a staple of its traditional medicine and cuisine, has been hampered by COVID-19 restrictions which have taken a major toll on the world’s largest producer of the sought-after spice.
The shortage of laborers to collect and process the flowers this year has severely affected the “red gold” industry, a major source of income in a country that produces more than 90% of the world’s saffron.
Since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Iran in February, more than 42,000 people have died and about 800,000 have been infected, leading authorities to apply temporary limits on travel between cities as well as on working hours.
Most of the day laborers who work in the eastern province of Jorasan Razavi, the center of Iranian saffron production, travel from other cities for the harvest.
“Due to the coronavirus, our day laborers did not come this year, their number was greatly reduced. This meant that we picked the flowers later and that some plots of land were left unharvested and could not be used properly,” explains EFE Manuchehr Maleki, who has been a farmer for 28 years.
Normally, each plot would be harvested in one day, but this year it was not possible: “It had never taken two days to harvest the flowers,” says Maleki in Torbat Heidarie, considered the capital of saffron.
The veteran farmer and irrigation expert adds that the whole process was behind schedule, and that the task of extracting the red stigmas from the bloom was not completed in time either, leading to more losses.
“The flowers stayed in our workshops for several days and in the end we had to throw them away,” he laments as he watches the day laborers still working on one of his plots, which stretches out over the land like a purple blanket.
In addition to the issues linked to the pandemic, the weather also had a negative effect on the harvest this year. Two blizzards caused a steep decrease in production.
LESS QUANTITY, BETTER QUALITY
Saffron production has steadily increased annually in Iran, but this year it has fallen by 20%, according to farmers that EFE spoke to.
With more than 100,000 hectares dedicated to saffron cultivation in 24 of its 31 provinces, nearly 500 tons were produced last year, 80% of which was for export.
But despite this season’s lower quantities, the quality is higher than in previous years due to the change in the drying system applied by most producers.
“The traditional system was based on natural drying at sunset on the patios of the houses or by roasting in sieves,” explains Soleiman Goli, a farmer from the region of Zaveh.
With the traditional model, the process took several days, but automatic machines can dry the plants in 10 minutes, according to Goli, who says that this new accelerated process improves the maintenance of the color and quality of the saffron.
The use of “red gold” is common in Iranian cuisine and also in traditional Persian medicine, which classifies food by its cold and hot nature. The latter are used against cold and flu and are now gaining popularity and visibility amid the pandemic.
A HEALTHY SPICE
Ali Shariati, head of the board of directors of the largest saffron processing and packaging company in the country, Novin Saffron, calls it in fact “the magic medicine of the third millennium,” telling EFE that it strengthens the immune system and has anti-inflammatory qualities.
“The biggest problem with saffron is that its different nutritional and curative aspects are unknown and should be studied,” he says in reference to the rest of the world, since in Iran its use is very common, even in herbal teas.
Previous studies have hinted that it has antidepressant and antioxidant effects, it favors digestion, it can help prevent cancer and other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as well as reducing the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, among others.