- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

HERAT, Afghanistan | The Afghan government, international aid groups and private businesses have been distributing saffron bulbs to farmers in what appears to be an increasingly successful effort to persuade them to give up cultivating opium poppies.

Farmers in this region along the Iranian border say their new crop is better suited to their religious beliefs and even more profitable. As a result, poppy fields are disappearing from the northwestern corner of Afghanistan.

“It’s not prohibited in Islam, and we can make more money,” said Nasir Ahmed Ataie, 40, a former poppy farmer who switched to saffron cultivation six years ago. “We want to grow saffron - no one is forcing us.”

Mohammed Ismaeil Hedarzada, Herat’s agriculture ministry director, estimated that at least 1,000 farmers are growing saffron in the province and harvested between 1,300 and 1,750 pounds last year.

“Saffron production has increased every year in the past three years,” Mr. Hedarzada said. “Now [512] acres of land are used for growing saffron.”

The spice is a key ingredient in the cuisine of the region, adding a distinctive yellow color to rice and other dishes.

Herat´s hot and dry summers are conducive to cultivating the saffron crocus, and the plant is capable of enduring the province´s harsh winters. Saffron also typically produces greater yields and fetches more money per acre than poppy.

The boom here hasn’t slowed opium production elsewhere in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Officials there say poppy is still the crop of choice in seven of the country’s 34 provinces, particularly in the south, where the Taliban thrives.

Even with a slight decrease in poppy production last year, Afghanistan is still responsible for more than 90 percent of the world’s opium. The Taliban, along with other militant groups and organized crime rings, hauled in up to $300 million in 2007 from opium trafficking, according to the UNODC.

Nevertheless, with more farmers being introduced to saffron, the crop is expected to continue to gain popularity.

Farmers here say they appreciate the fact that saffron doesn’t require as much labor or water as poppy, which is a significant selling point in light of Afghanistan’s ongoing drought.

The fields here are irrigated only once or twice during the winter gestation period. The saffron bulbs, which are fertile for up to seven years, are planted in August and September, and the flowers are harvested in November and December.

“We can grow four times more saffron than poppies,” Mr. Ataie said.

At the same time, worldwide demand for Afghan saffron is rising. The price has doubled over the past year to an average of $1,360 per pound - roughly 38 times what poppy farmers in the southern part of the country got for their crop this year.

“We’ve seen an increase for demand in markets outside of Afghanistan, along with an increase in prices every year since we started,” said Ghafair Hamid Zaie, 24.

Mr. Zaie, whose family in 2006 established Afghan Saffron, one of the largest saffron exporters in the country, attributed the rise to more farmers mastering growing and processing techniques.

Pure saffron is derived from the three red stigmas that protrude from the center of the crocus, which has purple petals. Mr. Zaie said most farmers previously extracted stigmas with their bare hands and then dried filaments on sheets under the sun.

That, Mr. Zaie said, led to contamination, and “pure saffron must be clean or it will not get a very good price.”

Farmers in Herat now use latex gloves when handling stigmas and dry the filaments in a sifter over a wood-burning fire, the traditional Italian method. The dried saffron is then stored in plastic bags.

Some Afghan farmers learned to grow saffron while taking refuge in Iran during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Haji Abdul Ghayoum spent two decades cultivating saffron in Iran, the world’s biggest producer, before returning to Afghanistan in 2000. Today, he shares his expertise with 30 other farmers on land they rent on the edge of Herat city. Mr. Ghayoum estimated that he has trained about 300 farmers to grow saffron in the past eight years, including 20 who once cultivated poppies.

“We are a Muslim country, so even the ground here prays to God,” Mr. Ghayoum said. “If poppy seeds are planted, there will be no harvest for three years - you won’t even to be able to grow wheat.”

In addition to its traditional uses as a spice, fabric dye and perfume, saffron has healing properties. In recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has identified it as an anticarcinogen, fueling demand for the crop.

Already, Mr. Zaie said so many farmers have requested bulbs that there is a shortage. The seed for saffron bulbs takes approximately four years to mature and lasts up to seven years. A mature bulb sells for the equivalent of about $3.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ataie said the collective he started six years ago with just two other farmers now numbers 600. In the first three years, Mr. Ataie said, he earned far less than when growing poppies, but his patience is paying off, and he’s being rewarded with high profits.

“It’s no sin to grow saffron,” Mr. Ataie said. “The poppy is good for the smugglers, but it’s no good for farmers.”

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