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World Reports

Late Bloomers

Betwa Sharma

On a chilly october evening in Pampore, a town in the Indian-administered section of Kashmir, 12-year-old Saiqa Shaukat sits with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in a backyard filled with plucked purple flowers. It’s the first day of harvesting. For hours on end, Shaukat and her relatives gently pick out three golden stigmas from each flower. Later these stigmas will be dried to make zafaraan, or saffron, sometimes called the king of spices.

woodcut-style graphic depicting a crocus

After leaving the congested roads of Srinagar, the capital of India-administered Kashmir, the dusty traffic gives way to long stretches of purple flower fields. In Kashmir, saffron is more than just a spice. It is the pride of the valley. India is among the top three saffron producers in the world, and while Iran produces the largest amount of saffron, Kashmiri farmers believe theirs to be superior in quality. One of the most expensive spices in the world (prices vary, but as of last year Kashmiri saffron was selling at about $18 to $20 per gram), saffron infuses a vibrant color and aroma into rich cuisine. It is also used as a cure for coughs, colds, and insomnia. A pinch of saffron imparts a delicate golden hue to a cup of traditional Kahwah, a kind of tea served to honored guests in Kashmiri homes.

Kashmiri farmers have been growing saffron for centuries. But the past decade has created new challenges for saffron farmers. Changing weather patterns driven by global warming – along with soil degradation, fungal infections, and rising pollution – have damaged the growth of the purple flower, Crocus sativus.

Although she isn’t familiar with the term “climate change,” even adolescent Shaukat knows that recently there have been problems with the saffron crop. “It is not raining, for one thing,” she says. All of Kashmir’s thousands of hectares of saffron fields are rainfed, and the farmers in Kashmir have depended on timely rains for hundreds of years. There are no wells to provide backup water supply in case it doesn’t rain. “We need wells here very badly because now it is hard to predict which year there won’t be rain,” says Basheer Ahmed Bhat, Shaukat’s uncle.

Fifteen years ago, saffron used to be grown on about 5,700 hectares of land in Kashmir, according to official records. Yields would often be as high as 5 to 7 kg/ha. Over the next decade, poor yields forced many farmers to give up the crop. The land area dedicated to saffron has declined by about a third as the yield has fallen to 2.75 kg/ha.

As a result, India’s estimated $59.9 million saffron industry faces an uncertain future, as does the livelihood of the more than 16,000 farming families that depend on the spice crop.

Changing rainfall patterns in the Kashmir area are a major reason for the decrease in saffron yields. It used to be that rain fell predictably in August and September. Now, altered snowfall and glacial melting patterns in the snow-capped Himalayas due to climate change mean delayed rain, and that leads to delayed blooming.

The rainy season in the Kashmir Valley has shifted to October, experts say, which intensifies the cold night temperatures that are detrimental to the flowers. By mid-October, which should be the height of the flowering season, there are now often only a few patches of the purple flowers in the saffron belt. “By October, we used to have a carpet of flowers,” says Firdous Nehvi, a leading scientist at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Science and Technology in Srinagar. The plants are flowering a month late, in November. “Too cold by that time,” Nehvi says. “The flower remains shriveled and our yields are very low,”

A persistent fungal infection called corm rot is another reason for low yields. Nehvi says the fungal problem is aggravated by climate change. Unusually high levels of precipitation in May and June are increasing humidity in the region and that aids fungus growth, he explains. “Climate change has really created a problem for saffron,” he says.

Faced with these challenges, Sher-e-Kashmir University scientists have come up with a simple scheme to save Kashmir’s lucrative crop from the impacts of climate change – using a sprinkler irrigation system to induce early flowering. This would allow sprouting to occur at its traditional time, in September, and flowering by mid-October to avoid the November cold.

While the idea sounds promising – and was approved by the Indian national government in 2010 as part of a $74.3 million endeavor called “Mission Saffron” – it’s taking a while to put into action. So far no wells have been installed in the saffron belt.

“We have been waiting for these wells for the past two years,” says Ghulam Ahmed, a farmer. “When will they come?”

In the meantime, area farmers experiment with soil restoration programs involving fertilizers and organic manure, and new methods of seed planting to increase germination rates. The government has provided farmers with modern weeding equipment and is planning on offering industrial blow-dryers for post-harvest handling. Beyond that, the farmers do what they’ve always done – they pray. “By God’s grace, we will get a good crop,” Bhat says.

Betwa Sharma is an India-based journalist who covers human rights issues. Her work can be found at www.betwasharma.com.

   

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