PRAGUE, June 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Saffron is more than an aromatic spice for rice, soups, and meat dishes. Dried filaments from the saffron flower have been used for thousands of years to make perfumes, colored dyes, and even herbal medicines.
In Herat, an agriculture expert says saffron also could help wean farmers away from growing opium poppies.
Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi is the head of agriculture administration in the western Afghan province. Having just completed the test phase of a farming project there, he is now urging farmers in his region to grow the saffron flower -- Crocus Sativus Linneaus -- instead of opium poppies.
"Herati saffron has beaten the international record for the most productive farm yield. I can confirm this," Ahmadi says. "The world's top producers of saffron are able to get farm yields of about 8 kilograms of saffron per hectare. But the Herati saffron fields have been even more productive [than that]."
The red, thread-like filaments of saffron are actually dried stigmas from the saffron flower. Each flower contains only three stigmas. And those must be separated from the rest of the flower by hand. It takes more than 150,000 flowers to produce enough filaments for 1 kilogram of saffron.
Farmers plant saffron flowers as spherical bulbs -- or "corms" -- rather than as seeds. Ahmadi says the initial investment needed for so many flower bulbs, as well as the labor-intensive harvesting and production processes -- make saffron a difficult crop for Afghan farmers to start growing without help from the government in Kabul.
Still, he tells RFE/RL that hundreds of farmers in Herat Province are now interested in the crop after hearing how Ahmadi's 40-hectare test plot produced more than 320 kilograms of saffron.
"The farmers of Herat, especially from the Ghoryan and Pashtunzarghon districts, have been coming to us asking for saffron bulbs," Ahmadi says."They say they are unable to buy the flower bulbs themselves to get started. We have received hundreds of applications asking for these bulbs."
But despite the success of the test project for saffron in western Afghanistan, Ahmadi warns that better processing and marketing methods are needed to ensure Afghan saffron farmers receive a fair market price for the product.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says he agrees.
"It is not sufficient to produce a crop, no matter how high your yields may be," Rubin says. "You have to be able to produce it at a cost that is competitive on the international market. And you have to be able to produce it at a quality that is competitive on the international market."
Looking For Help
Rubin tells RFE/RL that saffron is just one of several crops with a high value for a small volume -- something he says is necessary to provide a significant cash income to Afghan farmers. With the right infrastructure development, he says Afghan farmers eventually should be able to make good incomes from other spices, too, like cumin, or from essential oils that are distilled from plants.
"The problem of the developmental component of counternarcotics is not just finding some single other crop," Rubin says. "It means finding another basis for the economy of Afghanistan. It means many other crops -- which requires marketing and storage, road building, electricity, improved water supplies. Other industries go along with that, such as packaging and processing and so on, to create other kinds of employment."
Rubin says the lack of packaging and marketing facilities in neighboring Iran and Pakistan-administered Kashmir make it more difficult for saffron farmers there to get a fair market price for their harvests.
One example is the Khorasan region of Iran, just west of Herat. Khorasan is one of the world's largest saffron producing regions. Up to 85 percent of Iranian saffron is exported in bulk to Europe before it is processed or packaged. As a result, about 60 percent of Iranian saffron is distributed internationally under trademarks from Spain or the United Arab Emirates.
Most importantly, whereas an Iranian farmer typically gets just a few hundred dollars for each kilogram of high-quality unpackaged saffron, the same Iranian-grown saffron -- repackaged in Spain or Italy -- can sell for more than $2,000 per kilogram in the West.
Ahmadi agrees that Afghanistan must learn lessons from Iranian saffron producers and improve the way Afghan saffron is processed and packaged. He says that also would provide more legal jobs for seasonal farm workers.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Rishteen Qadiri in Herat and Sultan Sarwar in Prague contributed to this story.)