Before sunrise each day, 40-year-old farmer Abdurrahman starts to work on his saffron field in Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Almost 18 days ago, he planted the bulbs that will produce this spice. It marks his first experience with saffron farming.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest grower of opium poppies, producing more than 90 percent of the world’s supply. In September, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released results of a survey which showed 6,900 tons of opium were produced in Afghanistan in 2008. The average opium farmer’s gross income was $1,786 in 2008, compared with the average Afghan income of $426.
World organizations have been encouraging Afghan farmers to grow pomegranates, saffron, pistachios, and other crops instead, and a number of farmers in Farah – the second-largest opium producing province – are making the switch to saffron.
About a year ago, Abdurrahman voluntarily started planting legal crops. “We grow saffron to prevent poppy farming in Farah, because it is illegal under Islam, and as Muslims, we should follow what Islam tell us,” he said. An Afghan saffron company provided all the
equipment and saffron bulbs for farmers to grow saffron.
Mohammad Nader Malaki, a spokesman from the Afghan company, said, “We are covering half the acreage of each farm. We distributed 220 kilograms of saffron bulbs for each farmer and about 100 farmers joined with us. For three years, we will buy all the saffron the farmers produce.”
Saffron is easy to grow and needs very little care and water, which is important in the dry provinces of Afghanistan. The bulbs are planted late in October and will harvest in January.
“Farah is notorious for opium cultivation, but now we want to make it famous for saffron. The weather is warm in Farah and the saffron project will be success,” said the head of the Farah Province agricultural department, Mohammad Aslam Dana. The farmers are hopeful for the saffron harvest in Farah, as they believe that this would be a good alternative to poppies. In one year, one kilogram of saffron fetches more than 150000 Afghanis in Afghanistan’s main bazaar.
“This morning I looked out over my farm and I saw it (the saffron) growing normally,” said Asaf, a farmer in Yazdi village.
“I do believe that the international community will help us more if we abandon poppies,” said Abdurrahman, who knows that growing saffron or a legal crop, rather than opium poppies, is the way to go, especially if Farah residents want to see more development projects.