Pune man grows saffron on terrace, sells at Rs 6 lakh per kg

Gautam Rathod began indoor saffron farming in 2021 after he had to shut down his vehicle repairs business due to cancer. He uses aeroponics to cultivate saffron without soil on his terrace and sells it directly to customers apart from training beginners

Rashmi Pratap
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Gautam Rathod at his aeroponics saffron farming facility in Talegaon, Pune

Gautam Rathod at his aeroponics saffron farming facility in Talegaon, Pune

In 2020, when Gautam Rathod was diagnosed with kidney cancer, his life turned upside down. With a successful vehicle repairs and spare parts business in Talegaon, Pune, it was difficult for him to imagine life without mechanical work. “My right kidney was removed and the doctors asked me to discontinue my work and take up something that did not involve much physical labour,” says Gautam, who has successfully beaten cancer.

“I underwent chemotherapy for one day and was then put on immunotherapy for cancer. On the doctors’ advice, I shut down the successful business that I had set up in 2006,” says Gautam, a commerce graduate.

Since he was advised to work in a hygienic environment, Gautam began researching various farming options including microgreens, spirulina cultivation, cordyceps mushrooms and saffron. “I found saffron cultivation the best because the product and its benefits are well known. There is a ready market for the product and there is no need for awareness generation,” he says.

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Today, Gautam sells the best quality saffron grown on the terrace of his house using aeroponics – farming without soil. He sells saffron directly to customers at Rs500 to Rs800 per gram and the average rate works out to Rs 6 lakh per kg. 

He also provides training at his Pune facility, covering all aspects of saffron cultivation for beginners.

saffron bulbs
Saffron bulbs or corms at Gautam's unit (left) and saffron threads (right). Pic: Courtesy Gautam Rathod

Starting an aeroponics saffron farming unit

“I collected all the information about saffron and in 2021, I built a 100 sq ft (10 ft X 10 ft) cold storage facility on the 200 sq ft roof of my house,” he says.

Instead of using PUF panels for insulation, he used siporex bricks, which are made from natural materials and have high thermal insulation and waterproofing properties. 

They reduce energy consumption and lower carbon emissions. “The cost of setting up this room was Rs 1.10 lakh and the installation of cooling equipment (chiller system) cost me around Rs1 lakh. While an AC cannot go below 16 degrees Celsius, a chiller offers even zero degrees, fully replicating the climate in Kashmir on a need basis,” he points out. 

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Apart from a cold room, the other main requirements for aeroponics saffron farming are a humidifier to add nutrient-rich moisture to the air, a dehumidifier to remove excess moisture, racks with shelves and trays with holes. 

Aeroponics involves suspending the plants in the air and maintaining a moist environment. “The dehumidifier and humidifier cost Rs 25,000 each and for sunlight, I put up grow lights. One light costs Rs800 to Rs1000 and I needed 24 of them for my 100 sq ft facility,” he points out.

The overall investment in setting up a 100 sq ft unit is Rs4 lakh. Gautam procured 200 kg of saffron bulbs or corms from Kashmir at Rs600 per kg. “Since I started with 200 kg seeds, I needed four racks, each having six shelves,” he adds.

The cost of seeds depends on the season. “Right now (in July), the cost is Rs1200 per kg, but if you book in December, then you can procure them now at Rs 600 per kg,” he says.

The bulbs are in dormancy in June-July. “We put the bulb in trays in August and they begin flowering in October. Once the flowers attain a certain size, we harvest them. One bulb gives three flowers per season. I completed harvesting on January 16 this year,” he says.

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Multiplication of saffron bulbs

From planting to harvesting, factors like light, water, and temperature are carefully controlled in aeroponics. “We don’t use chemicals, resulting in organic saffron,” he says.

Gautam has put six shelves in each rack with a grow light for each shelf. Pic: Courtesy Gautam Rathod

The large red stigmas of saffron flowers are removed and dried, turning into saffron threads. It is the world’s costliest spice due to the time-consuming and laborious process involved in traditional soil farming.

Gautam says saffron flowering is not tough, but bulb multiplication is difficult. After harvest, the flowering or mother plant can multiply by producing small daughter corms that develop alongside the main corm. 

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The rate at which saffron bulbs multiply can vary depending on factors such as growing conditions, soil quality, and care provided to the plants. “We have to replicate Kashmir’s climate and soil in our facility for multiplying corms. I use a base of well-drained soil and then add nutrients to it. Then I put the daughter corms in the soil for multiplication. This is necessary to ensure that the grower does not depend on others for seeds and repeatedly spend money,” Gautam points out.

“If you learn to multiply saffron corms, then aeroponic saffron farming can be very profitable. The multiplication is important because you can get three to four bulbs from one bulb and stop incurring costs on their purchase. Plus more bulbs means higher production,” he says.

Gautam has a unique method of selling saffron. “When flowering starts, I allow visitors in my facility and it is the best way to market. They see the quality of saffron first-hand and are willing to pay a premium. I also sell through social media platforms,” he adds.

Saffron flower’s fresh petals are used in cosmetics. “Most of the buyers are in Kashmir and they buy in bulk. Since it is not possible to send fresh petals from here to Kashmir, I am planning to make a product here itself,” Gautam says.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial, and socio-economic reporting)

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