Abbotsford farmer Avtar Dhillon spent almost five years experimenting with various methods to grow the flower that produces saffron – the world’s most expensive spice – before hitting success this year.
He was crushed when he thought all that hard work was washed away after catastrophic flooding hit the Sumas Prairie starting in mid-November.
But when the floodwaters receded enough for Dhillon to walk his farmland on Sunday (Dec. 5), he was shocked to discover that his saffron flowers were much tougher than he thought.
The waters had swept away the flowers’ purple blossoms, but most of the bulbs were still in the ground and were already re-sprouting.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Dhillon said.
He immediately fertilized the plants, and will continue to do so every day. He expects the first new crop to be ready for harvesting in a couple of weeks.
Each flower is hand-picked, and the three inside crimson stigmas – called threads – are removed, dried out, and sold mainly as a spice for cooking.
The product can be sold in thread form or as a powder, and Dhillon sells it for $50 per gram.
The renewal of the crop is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise devastating situation for Dhillon and his family.
Their land is situated in the Sumas Prairie flood plain that was decimated when several “atmospheric rivers” brought record rainfalls to the area.
The deluge resulted in the Nooksack River overflowing its banks in Washington State and flowing north into Abbotsford, as well as the Sumas Dike suffering several breaches. All those floodwaters consumed the farmland in their wake.
Hundreds of farms planted in crops such as blueberries – which are also grown by Dhillon – were submerged for weeks, and it’s yet to be determined whether contaminated floodwaters will pose a serious, long-term problem in the future. Other farming operations such as dairy, poultry and hogs suffered extreme losses of livestock.
Mayor Henry Braun lifted evacuation orders on Friday for the northern portion of Sumas Prairie – where Dhillon’s farm is located – and on Monday for the central portion.
Two other areas – the south and “lake bottom” – were still under evacuation order as of press deadline Wednesday.
Dhillon and his twin brother Jagtar have been operating the 25-acre Ramsar Berry Farm near the Chilliwack border since 2006, and the two families – with their combined five children – all live together.
The saffron was going to be a way to supplement their income from their blueberry crops.
But the floods have left them questioning whether they will be able to continue to operate, even with the possible renewal of the saffron crop.
Three feet of water encompassed their property, causing extensive damage to the bottom floor of their home, all their farm machinery and their blueberry crop. They also lost about $20,000 in saffron flower bulbs that had not yet been planted.
Although the blueberry bushes are still standing, Dhillon said the roots are likely rotted and it will take another four or five years for new plants to grow and up to 10 years to be back to full production.
Meanwhile, the family is unable to live in the home, and Dhillon is working as a truck driver while the two families rent a fully furnished house for $5,500 a month.
He feels discouraged about what he says is a lack of immediate government financial support to help local farmers survive until they can rebuild and for the resources they will need to cover their losses moving forward. The future is uncertain, he says.
“Nobody can give me a guarantee that I can start over … (I feel like) nobody is helping. Blueberry farmers – nobody cares. Nobody stands with us now,” he said.