In the small town of New Home, thirty minutes south of Lubbock, stately houses in freshly paved residential areas face the dusty, flat horizon dotted with cotton rows, tumbleweeds, and dust devils. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but it ended up being the perfect environment for the first large-scale saffron farm in Texas, Meraki Meadows. Here, sisters Andrea McDonald and Lyneil Beck, their husbands, Karl McDonald and Andy Beck, and their combined total of six children grow the world’s most expensive spice.

Sometimes called red gold, saffron is primarily grown in Iran, where the county’s future as the world’s largest producer is threatened by sanctions and climate change. However, small growers in the United States—like the McDonalds and the Becks—are discovering the stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower can sell for between $20 and $75 per gram, according to Margaret Skinner, a research professor and extension entomologist who runs a listserv called SaffronNet at the University of Vermont. “You do the math—that’s approximately nine thousand dollars a pound, at minimum,” she says, adding that a one-acre plot has the potential to earn $100,000 by its third year of production. 

Skinner has been collecting data about climates and their corresponding challenges to share with farmers aiming to diversify their crops by planting saffron. “As it turns out,” she says, “Iran and West Asia are similar, temperature-wise, to West Texas.”

That’s exactly what Karl found when he googled “most profitable small farm crop” and “crops that do well in West Texas.”

Karl had never had personal experience with farming (unlike the other adults in the family), but both Andy and Karl had worked for John Deere, as a software engineer and a territory customer support manager, respectively. Andrea is a special education teacher at New Home ISD, where Lyneil is the librarian. The idea to start a farming operation began during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the McDonalds moved from Monroe, Louisiana, to help the Becks run the New Home Church of Christ. The Becks had fifteen acres on their property they weren’t using. 

The McDonalds intended to move in for only a short time, with plans to build their own house nearby. But when the prices of real estate and construction materials spiked, the families decided to continue the living arrangement.

Karl had recently visited farms in California as part of an agriculture leadership class at the University of Louisiana, which he took for a career development certificate. He started thinking about the possibilities for the acreage in New Home. “The first thing I wanted to do was not pick a crop we were going to have to fight,” Karl said.

Harvesting saffron flowers.
Harvesting saffron crocus flowers. Courtesy of Meraki Meadows
The stigmas of crocus flowers.
The stigmas of crocus flowers. Courtesy of Meraki Meadows

Harvesting saffron crocus flowers requires a delicate touch, so heavy-duty equipment wasn’t necessary to get the process started. The families already had everything they needed: a small amount of land, simple equipment, and a lot of people.

When 20,000 crocus bulbs, or corms, arrived from Holland right before Labor Day in 2020, the six children understood they’d been commissioned for “straight-up torture,” as Brazos, Andy and Lyneil’s outspoken sixteen-year old son, jokes.

Around six weeks after they plant the corms on a half acre is when the hard labor truly begins. With the arrival of fall, the ground temperature lowers and activates the bulbs, causing the purple-petaled flowers to emerge at daybreak. The flowers grow for the next five or six weeks, and each will need to be picked immediately and processed the same day. 

The family sets an alarm for 5 a.m. to pick the blooms. When the kids return from school, they rejoin their parents to manually pluck the three vermilion stigmas in each flower and place them onto a dehydrator mat. The tedious work will continue right up until Thanksgiving. In the first year of farming in 2020, the flowers were hand-planted, hand-weeded, hand-harvested, and hand-processed. A simple planting machine has since reduced the amount of physical labor, but because saffron corms multiply each year, the family must now spend double the amount of hours separating the stigmas from the petals. There’ll be approximately 40,000 flowers to pick this fall. 

The hand-processing is the reason why saffron is so expensive, and it’s why some imports from countries like Spain and Afghanistan can be mixed with “petals, wood chips, and all sorts of stuff,” Skinner says. “When you buy from a local source, you know you’re getting pure, unadulterated saffron.”

Meraki Meadows sells whole stigmas by the half gram for $20, and the most-potent red tips, which they call “premium choice,” for $30. They’ll soon add a one-gram jar. Customers who purchase the larger size will get a discount on future refills. The company sold only ten grams its first year, but after getting some press, the farm slowly began to grow its customer base. The first online order was from a woman interested in buying homegrown saffron to help alleviate menstrual cramps, but Karl describes most customers as people with “refined taste” who use the spice for cooking. Saffron brings a subtly sweet, floral flavor to rice, casseroles, stews, and desserts. 

For Yasmin Khan, the UK-based author of The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen, whose mother is from Iran, the scent of saffron is “evocative of home.” Quality saffron is incredibly potent, requiring only a few strands to make an impact, so she grinds her saffron with sugar and dilutes it with boiled water when cooking. “I think there’s a bit of a misperception around how difficult saffron is to use,” Khan said. “Let’s take probably the most famous of Persian dishes, which is a grilled chicken dish. You just marinate the chicken in some yogurt, some garlic, some saffron, some olive oil, salt, pepper. That’s it. You put that on the barbecue—it’s just absolutely incredible.”

While the Becks and McDonalds have tried a few traditional savory Persian dishes, they’ve found the family most enjoys saffron in cakes and ice cream (which is also common in Persian cooking). Adelynn, Karl and Andrea’s nine-year-old daughter, adds the crocus petals to bath bombs, a product the family will be adding to the website soon. Saffron is a natural ingredient for beauty products as well, as it is believed to contain naturopathic mood-lifting benefits.

Andrea confirms saffron makes the family happy, even when the harvesting season comes to a close: “We’re glad to see the purple come up, and we’re glad to see the dehydrator go back up in the attic.” The whole endeavor has helped the kids learn the meaning of hard yet satisfying work.

The name “Meraki” was suggested by Lyneil and Andy’s youngest son, Brayson, who googled the Greek term, which he says means “to put something of yourself into what you’re passionate about and working for—like blood, sweat, and tears.”