"WE STARTED off with a wheelbarrow, a spade and a grand," says Tas-Saff co-owner Nicky Noonan.
Twenty-four years of competing with cheap Iranian and Spanish imports has given the Huon Valley saffron grower the fortitude to survive in what is fast becoming a marginalised niche market in Australia.
Terry and Nicky Noonan now contract out most of their wheelbarrows and spades to 50 growers across Australia and New Zealand, but their market position remains.
"You can buy a gram of Iranian saffron for $3 retail and we're paying our growers $30 a gram," Mrs Noonan said.
"We're paying them 10 times more at the farmgate."
Australia imports about 3000 kilograms of saffron annually, while Tas-Saff's combined growers can muster only 10kg between them each year.
Herein lies the difficulty of growing such a sensitive crop, according to Mrs Noonan, who said potential growers must fulfil the most stringent of criteria.
A warm autumn or a wet summer is enough to destroy the delicate flowers, which are picked at dawn, starting in April, for 40 days.
Neutral, well-draining soil is a prerequisite, as is all-day sun – and, perhaps more importantly, patience.
"It's a very slow process," Mrs Noonan said.
Tas-Saff provides selected growers with 10,000 saffron corms – small bulbs resembling a garlic clove – which are planted in December-January.
"The mother corms can produce up to eight to 10 daughter corms in one year if the conditions are right," she said.
Corms can remain in the ground for up to four years before being dug up and spread across adjoining paddocks.
The Noonans have recently targeted old tobacco-growing country at Myrtleford in North East Victoria.
"We're really going for people with experience in farming," she said.
"One of our growers at Myrtleford grows wheat and canola and he's doing a small plot of saffron for us this year."
About 400 square metres can accommodate 10,000 corms and just two hectares is required to grow a rotational saffron crop. Other areas experiencing growing success are Oberon and Bathurst, NSW; Mount Barker, SA; and Sheffield, Huon Valley and Franklin in Tas.
The Noonans' quest to unearth the most fertile saffron-growing land is characterised by their final product.
Tas-Saff creates an extra-category-one saffron – the top end of the market, selling at $30,000-$35,000/kg – which is sold to gourmet outlets and some supermarkets.
"It's selling as quickly as we can produce it," Mrs Noonan said."We're expanding but it takes time."
The pair have also been providing saffron to Jonathan Stone, professor of retinal and cerebral neurobiology at the University of Sydney, for macular degeneration research.
Dr Stone, director of Clear Sight Clear Mind, is following the path of Italian scientists whose 2013 experiment gave 25 macular degeneration sufferers 20 milligrams of saffron a day for six months.
All 25 were tested for neuron electrical conductivity in the macula and retina, and 23 showed significant improvement.
Those 23 also reported they could see much better.
Research thus far in Australia has proven inconclusive but Mrs Noonan said saffron had also been used in research for kidney, bladder and liver disorders.
Aside from servicing valuable research projects, Mrs Noonan plans to keep lobbying the government to equalise the commercial criteria for imported and domestic produce.
"We have to do a lot of certifications to be able to supply our suppliers," she said.
"We have to be audited and have a lot of quality assurance programs and we feel imports should go through the same stringent testing."