Just an hour’s drive northwest from the Napa Valley a small farm in Kelseyville is growing a culinary treasure that's nearly worth its weight in gold — saffron. Melinda Price and her husband, Simon Avery, literally bet the farm on growing this labor-intensive crop and fulfilling a dream.
For years the couple had searched for ways to give up their day jobs and become organic farmers. Then one day while listening to a radio program they learned that saffron spice was successfully being grown at the University of Vermont.
“It was like the lightbulb went off, and we thought, heck, that sounds like a perfect crop for what we want to do,” Price said. “I mean, we thought it wouldn't take a huge amount of land to make it work financially, and we could grow other crops throughout the year to supplement our income and also provide organic produce to the community.”
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In an act that was a true leap of faith, the couple contacted the University of Vermont and procured more than 7,000 Crocus sativus corms (bulbs). Now the only thing they needed was some land in which to plant them.
“The corms needed to get in the ground quickly if we were going to make that year's harvest,” Price said. “We looked in Napa and Sonoma, but the land prices were prohibitive. We started looking in Lake County and found this amazing farm, almost at the last second.”
The couple rushed to till the land and plant the corms. They were dedicated to ensuring that they adhered to strict organic principles and to living in balance with nature. The gophers loved their new neighbors’ plan.
“We quickly lost about 30% of our crop to gophers,” Price said. “We were devastated. We'd put everything into this, and we needed that crop to survive or we might not.”
Once the couple recovered from the initial shock, they rolled up their sleeves and went back to work. The plan: Quickly dig up the remaining corms, line the garden beds with wire mesh, replant and hope they could complete it all in time to ensure a healthy enough harvest to survive that first year.
Price and Avery met through an online dating site that matched them based on their shared love of nature. Avery, an ornithologist by training, had spent much of his life assisting organizations to protect bird populations in positions that ranged from being stationed on tiny rocky islands off the coast of his native Britain to being deployed by The Nature Conservancy in California to create habitats for migratory shore birds and restore California condor populations. He has also restored habitats for birds on the Channel Islands.
“Although I was never technically a farmer, I’ve spent my life doing plenty of things that are directly applicable to what we do here every day,” he said. “From just the physicalness to planting native grasses, mostly it all feels natural and normal.”
Even so, Avery admits that the physical labor needed to run a year-round farm is tougher than most people might imagine.
“We've started to bring in interns who are interested in learning about growing saffron and organic farming, which is a big help,” he said.
Unlike Avery who grew up in Britain with a fondness for birds, Price grew up in Stockton, California, surrounded by farms.
“I always dreamt of being a full-time farmer,” she said, “but it wasn't until this farm that I was able to make that dream come true.”
Although Price has had many careers — public-school teacher, caterer, single mother, tech worker in San Francisco and volunteer at Sonoma’s Summerfield Waldorf's School and Farm — her first career was that of a high-fashion model in Paris. Even then, as she posed in thousand-dollar dresses from Lanvin, Valentino and Hubert de Givenchy, she often dreamed of one day becoming an organic farmer.
“I adored Paris, but it wasn’t enough somehow,” she said. “I did love all the new tastes and the quality of food there. I lived in an apartment above a cremerie, a fromagerie and a boulangerie, and I loved learning about the different types of cheeses I had never even heard of before, but I wanted more connection with nature.”
Today, Price and Avery's dream of being connected to nature is being fulfilled. Their plan to protect the C. sativus from the gophers after that first year worked, and now they have more than 500,000 plants that produce nearly 9 pounds of saffron a year, making them one of the biggest — if not the biggest — saffron producer in America.
Saffron production, which is well suited for hot, dry conditions, is concentrated in the Middle East. Dormant during the hotter months of the year, the plant sprouts in September.
As the poster child of what it means to be hand-picked, the three fragrant crimson stigmas found on each C. sativus flower must be delicately harvested by hand. Over the monthlong harvest — starting in late October and running into November — each corm might produce more than a dozen flowers.
Once the stigmas are isolated, they are allowed to cure (dry) for eight months, during which time they develop their unmistakable flavors and aromas that hint of honey, earthen loam and dry hay with sweet floral notes.
Transforming everything it touches with a golden-yellow hue, saffron is an integral component of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine — found in Moroccan tagine, Persian tahdig, Spanish paella and Italian risotto alla Milanese.
Because of its unfamiliarity to many American consumers (and cost — 1 gram of their organic saffron costs $75), Peace and Plenty Farm is on a mission to show just how versatile the spice is by crafting products that infuse its earthy fragrance into everything from savory shortbread to local honey and even lemonade.
“Once you’ve gotten to know saffron, it opens up an entire new culinary world to explore,” Price said.
Beyond saffron, the couple also offer year-round produce sold at their onsite farm stand, dinners and summer events when their lavender crop is bloom. Tours and overnight stays at the farm’s ranch house or hip Airstream provide additional ways to engage with one of the most singular gardens in the region.
“We feel truly blessed to be here,” Price said. “It’s hard work, but there’s no other place we’d like to be.”
Peace and Plenty Farm is open seven days a week from spring through fall, 9 a.m. until dusk. 4550 Soda Bay Road, Kelseyville, California. The website is peaceplentyfarm.com.