Pampore in Kashmir is India’s centre of saffron production. Saffron costs $1500/kg and 90% of India’s saffron is grown in Kashmir. The problem is Kashmir’s saffron production is plummeting. Monis Mir, a local farmer interviewed by Priti Gupta of the BBC, explains what is happening. “Mr Mir says his fields have become less productive over the years. He can remember a time when the crocus would flower three to five times in a growing season, now that’s down to two or three.

He blames more erratic patterns of rainfall and higher temperatures, which leaves the soil too dry for the sensitive crocus plant.

Scientist who have studied saffron cultivation agree that conditions have become more difficult.
“Climate change is a reality, creating havoc for saffron fields,” says Dr Bashir Allie, who heads the Saffron Research Station, at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

“Rains and the snowfall have become erratic and uncertain. Fields which were very productive just 10 years back don’t produce much saffron now.”

The amount of land devoted to saffron production has dwindled in Indian-administered Kashmir. Around 5,700 hectares was given over to the crop in 1996, by 2020 that had fallen to 1,120.

As well as the changing weather patterns, Mr Mir blames the expansion of towns and villages onto saffron fields, and lack of investment in irrigation and training for farmers.”

But this is India and nobody gives up in this country. “To revitalise the saffron farmers, Dr Allie is trying to breed hardier crocus plants.

He uses a technique called mutation breeding in which the DNA of the plants is disrupted by exposing seeds to radiation. The hope is that some of the resulting gene mutations will be useful and help the plants prosper in different climatic conditions.

The results have been “encouraging” says Dr Allie.”

An even more ingenious attempt to revive saffron production is being led by an IT professional from the booming city of Pune: “For 13 years Shailesh Modak was a software engineer based in Pune, 1,400 miles south of Pampore.

Despite being well paid, Mr Modak says he was not happy with his job and in 2016 he decided to quit…

So, he switched to saffron production, gambling that he could successfully grow crocus plants in a shipping container.

To meet the exacting needs of the crocus plant the container was fitted with an air conditioning and circulation system. Sensors continually monitor temperature, humidity, CO2 and light levels.

The plants themselves are cultivated in tubes containing moisture and nutrients, rather than soil.

Mr Modak also developed software so all the conditions could be controlled remotely from his phone.

“The biggest problem with agriculture is too much dependency on climate,” he says. “With changes in climate crops fail. So I decided to use the technique of hydroponics – cultivation without soil.”

Last year he devoted half of the container to saffron, which produced 700g. This year the whole container is producing the spice.

“We are in experimental stage – learning to create a environment in which saffron can grow,” he says.”

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