Selwyn and Lois Dobbinson are enthusiastic land custodians with a passion for tackling new ventures.
“I think when you have a block of land then you really do have a responsibility to make something productive from it,” says Selwyn, a retired vet. “New Zealand has so little actual farmable land and all the better land is diminishing as the cities move out.”
And productive they certainly are. They bought a 30 acre block in West Melton 20 years ago, which had grapes, a tunnel house and asparagus. After selling off part of it and diversifying into olives and chestnuts, a friend introduced them to the idea of saffron.
“We sit on the old Waimakariri riverbed and the cold air from the foothills runs straight through here, so we have always struggled with intense frosts,” says Selwyn.
FROSTS AND DRY CONDITIONS LOVED BY SAFFRON
But the tricky West Melton conditions are perfect for saffron growing.
“Saffron is essentially a desert plant,” he says. “They don’t like fertiliser, they don’t like water and they love a very cold winter.”
They bought 1000 corms the first year, adding another 2000 a year later and then divided and planted more. They now have around 30,000.
A SLOW START TO SALES
“For the first five years we didn’t sell anything,” says Lois, “but then a Tasmanian saffron company was looking for New Zealand growers. We formed a co-op of saffron growers in the area, they quality tested our product and then it all went to Tasmania which was great.”
“They do grow it in Australia but can’t get enough,” says Selwyn. “There’s a lot of ethnic groups that are familiar with the use of saffron so the market over there is quite strong. But we don’t have that here in New Zealand.”
Unfortunately the contract with Tasmania was discontinued after a few years.
“Most of the little groups like ours have given up now,” says Lois. “It’s just too hard to find a sale. It’s easy to grow things, it’s very hard to sell them and we just don’t have the quantities for export. I got a message one day from Saudi – they wanted 20kg. Last season we picked 39,000 flowers and got 120g!”
“It’s price,” explains Selwyn. “You can buy Indian saffron for half the price of ours. We calculate the actual cost, without putting any labour whatsoever into it, and they sell at half that. It makes you really wonder about the harvesting conditions.
SAFRANIN THE KEY TO QUALITY
“The quality of saffron is directly related to the colour,” he says. “The chemical safranin which gives you the colour is ultraviolet light sensitive. In the Middle East they grow and harvest en masse and dry their flowers in the sun which gives imported saffron that pale, tan colour.
“The petals are furled around when they come out of the ground and once the sun comes up it dries the moisture from the petals, the flower opens up and exposes the stigmas. We pick the entire flower early morning before it opens so the safranin is never damaged by ultraviolet light. It also means no bees can brush the stigmas with pollen (which causes bitterness) and there is no dust contamination.”
Although the cost of organic registration is beyond their budget, they still stick to organic principles. No sprays at all are used and they only buy organic mushroom mulch to keep the weeds down and supply the corms with gypsum. They make their own organic seaweed fertiliser from kelp foraged from local beaches.
Lois dries the saffron stigmas in dehydrators, away from sunlight so no precious safranin is lost. The resulting colour is an amazing, vivid red and the scent: a powerful blast of heady perfume.
“It’s not uncommon for imported powdered saffron to be contaminated with turmeric,” says Selwyn, “and it’s intriguing that you can buy plastic copies of the stigmas that they can use to dilute the saffron. Makes you a bit nervous of imported product.”
For Selwyn and Lois the future of New Zealand saffron is bright.
“What we’re hoping is that people will gradually become more familiar with saffron and its uses and over time the market will build,” says Selwyn. “We think that is happening already. Last year was one of our best.”
Lois can often be found selling saffron at the West Melton Saturday morning market, at the Christchurch A&P show and at various fairs and food festivals around Canterbury.
You can also buy directly from the door at:
125 Chattertons Road
Phone: 03 342 9094