Brian and Margaret Eyers began their smallholding enterprise three years ago on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall with a clear vision to produce saffron.

Their smallholding is an acre in size and they dedicate a quarter of it to growing crocus and the remaining to growing flowers, foliage, herbs and vegetables.

Brian says, “If your smallholding is very small you have to grow a niche crop. I wanted to do the saffron and that was one of the main decisions I made after I’d researched it.”

They plant crocus bulbs at the end of July and they flower from late September through until November. The crocus requires good fertile soil that is well drained. Brian is trialling feeding the soil with a liquid feed of cold-pressed kelp to improve fertility. He also treats the plot to seaweed that he collects from a local beach after storms.

Brian and Margaret spend hours early every morning picking the flowers. It’s especially important to get them collected if it is wet as the petals can protect the stigma from rain but once they’re open the stigma could deteriorate.

Wearing protective gloves, the couple lay the crocus flowers out to dry indoors for an hour or more if wet. Then the real work begins. For hours through the afternoon and evening they carefully and patiently remove the stigma with tweezers.

They can each remove the stigma from 300 crocus an hour which is all the more extraordinary when you see the process. It is a time-consuming job that has to be done precisely. None of the white of the stigma is selected, only the red. This may sound simple enough but we are talking about strands that are no thicker than a pin. To pluck the right part of something so tiny and fragile with tweezers repeatedly and correctly for hour after hour is an extraordinary feat. This explains the high price of saffron and the better the quality, the more time has been spent on this meticulous process.

The drying is critical and they use a food dehydrator set at a low temperature of around 45 degrees. The timing is variable depending on how much moisture is in the air and how much needs to be dried. If stigma is overdried the saffron will be brittle but if it is under dried then the saffron will go mouldy. Brian has spent years drying tisanes and herbs so he uses this experience to judge when the saffron is ready.

Once dry, the Eyers inspect the saffron to ensure that there are no foreign objects such as parts of petal or any white. Low priced saffron is often bulked up with the white sections of the stigma to add weight but the white reduces the strength of the spice overall.

The couple seal the saffron into large pots for wholesale and small gram pots for easier domestic use. After a month the saffron has matured and can be used.

The majority of the crop is bought by Tarquin’s who last year made a spectacularly successful saffron gin, ‘The Cornish Crocus’, that sold out around the country in record time. This year the Eyers have doubled the size of the crop so that more of the limited edition gin can be made.

The rest of the harvest is bought by the local Michelin starred chef and other high end restaurants.

With the remaining land the couple grow flowers that they sell to local chefs and at their gate as ‘country bunches’.

Brian loves growing good varieties of old heritage vegetables, “Sometimes I grow stuff just because I’m curious. After school I trained as a chef and I think that gives me an inkling of what interests chefs. They like to have ingredients that are special. If I grow peas I’ll choose unusual varieties and it’s the same with beans. They’re not grown commercially on a large scale, mine are grown for flavour and tenderness. I’m growing for a Michelin starred chef so I need to inspire him. In fact we now work together and when a chef asks for something I say I’ll have a go and in turn, I grow things that I think they’ll like and enjoy working with. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t! I’m constantly learning.”

It’s not all the good life so they keep learning and adjusting.

“At the end of the day we don’t make a huge amount of money. The pigeons can write off all your cabbages and on another day the slugs have had it all. It’s not all perfect but I have learnt to try again.

“I’ve stepped up preventative measures and I’ve built a 5 metre perch and planted it next to the beds and now buzzards and owls all use it. We know it’s worked and it’s a great ploy to work with nature to control mice, voles and rabbits.”

In fact some of the mistakes have taken him down new paths. He didn’t pick a few cabbages, kale and broccoli because of slug damage and they went on to throw up dramatic flowers that are edible. Brian laughs, “All of a sudden I’m growing edible flowers and selling these flowers makes more money than the cabbages would have made!”

As well as selling edible flowers to restaurants, Brian makes ‘Country Bunches’ from the wild flower patch and other flowers types which are sold from the garden gate. Some are edible bouquets featuring rosemary and Sweet Williams.

All of the activities are interrelated and the cyclical nature of the smallholding is carefully designed. The majority of vegetables and flowers are in season from spring to September and that is when the saffron work starts. The bees at the end of the plot, the chickens, the vegetables, flowers and saffron make for a beautiful and productive smallholding.

Brian finishes by saying, “If you want to get rich, don’t be a smallholder, it’s the way of life that’s so special.”

For more on the Eyers find them on Facebook at Cornish Saffron Company.

[Copyright Lisa Young 2017 as featured in Smallholder magazine Christmas 2017.]