BURLINGTON — The future of small, diversified farms in Vermont and New England may depend on a University of Vermont entomologist, an Iranian postdoctoral student and a retired Franklin County welder and farmer with leased land in Franklin County.

Together, the three are studying the viability of growing saffron in a high tunnel greenhouse located on St. Albans Bay. And they’re finding that the valuable, labor intensive crocus commonly grown in arid desert regions of Iran, Afghanistan and Spain could play a major role in diversifying the agriculture opportunities for local farmers in New England in the same way that maple syrup does.

The project started two years ago, when Dr. Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a native of Tehran, came to visit his Iranian wife, currently a researcher at the University of Vermont Entomology lab. Ghalehgolabbehbahani earned his PhD in the northeastern Iranian city of Massah, considered the capital of saffron in a country that produces 90 percent of the rare spice.

He pitched the saffron idea to Dr. Margaret Skinner, a UVM research professor who had tried with limited success to grow the bulbs, called “corms” on a small scale in Vermont, but had never truly considered their viability locally.

Now all they needed was the funding, and they found it through a small grant to construct a high tunnel greenhouse on St. Albans Bay land leased by Bob Roberts, a Michigan native and former welding instructor.

“It’s like maple syrup,” Skinner explained. “That’s an expensive commodity, but most people in Vermont have it in the refrigerator.”

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