They’re Just Mad About Saffron

A small Northern California farm where life is sweet.

peace and plenty farm saffron

About three hours north of San Francisco, past Napa and Sonoma and a good 50 miles beyond Healdsburg, is a quarter-acre saffron farm called Peace & Plenty Farm. Melinda Price and Simon Avery left their lives in San Francisco to launch this small operation in Kelseyville, despite having no background in agriculture. “We didn’t know if we could grow a straight carrot,” says Price, who had previously worked as a project manager at a tech startup.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Price and former field biologist Avery embarked on their new careers as saffron farmers soon after they met and married in 2016. Before settling on saffron, they considered and rejected other potential niche, high-value crops like cannabis (neither of them partake), mushrooms (too much time indoors), and hops (too water-intensive).

Nearly all of the world’s saffron is produced in Iran, where labor costs to hand-harvest the spice are much lower, but there are farms in the United States, including ones run by Amish and Mennonite communities. The University of Vermont offers a saffron-growing research and development program, where Price attended a one-day growers’ conference in 2017.

Eventually, the couple purchased 7,000 saffron corms from Holland and started looking for land. Priced out of Sonoma, they expanded their Zillow radius and found seven acres in Lake County, just up the road from Clear Lake State Park. The land was overgrown with chest-high star thistle weeds, but it had good soil and water, a farmhouse from the 1870s, and a barn, and they could afford the down payment with help from friends. (The entire property cost $510,000.)

After a rough couple of years—gophers ate about a third of the corms in 2018—they found their footing. Each year, they harvest more saffron, and more importantly, the business is thriving. Crocus sativus is the exotic attraction that brings visitors—as well as reporters from Martha Stewart Living and Sunset—to the certified-organic farm. Peace & Plenty’s Instagram feed gorgeously depicts saffron production. “These guys are our marketing geniuses,” says Price, gesturing at the rows of crocuses, which look like short tufts of grass. In mid-November, when I visited, they were in full bloom, and Price and Avery deftly extracted the purple flowers from the surrounding foliage with the ease of longtime growers.

Tourists sometimes buy dried saffron ($35 for half a gram), but most purchase $12 pints of brightly hued saffron lemonade, $5 pieces of saffron shortbread, and a range of other artisanal goods produced by Price, who briefly ran a catering company in San Francisco and enjoys experimenting with whatever is in season. In addition to making specialty products, the couple also grows vegetables, lavender, and cut flowers and raises chickens for eggs. Their year-round farm stand has a loyal local following in an agricultural region largely devoted to growing wine grapes. Last year, they made $240,000 in sales, roughly 60 percent of which came from the farm stand. “It has been a huge success—we could probably just sell saffron lemonade and make a living,” says Price. The other 40 percent comes from three picturesque Airbnb farm stays (two tiny houses and an Airstream), farm-to-table dinners they host, and sales at events like S.F.’s Renegade Craft.

Price doesn’t mince words when asked about what harvest season is like. “I dread saffron harvest all year round—last year, I was in tears because I didn’t think I could do it again,” she says.

Harvesting takes at least a full week of 18-hour days, getting up at 4 in the morning to pick the late-blooming crocuses in 22-degree temperatures with bare hands. Harsh, to be sure, but at the same time, Price recommends this life wholeheartedly. “One hundred percent—I would never go back,” she says. “Work-life balance doesn’t apply to farming at all. We are working seven days a week, but we’re also on vacation.”•

Lydia Lee writes frequently about design and architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a local bicycle advocate.
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