Spice of life

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“I think we could grow this,” Terry Noonan said to his wife Nicky 20 years ago when he picked up an eighth of a gram, $14 jar of top grade Spanish saffron in Hobart. Terry, “a bit of a cook and a chef”, had read in a book that the temperate climate on the Apple Isle is similar to Spain, which used to be the best region to grow the spice. 

Nicky and Terry, owners and operators of Tas-Saff, were the first people to bring Crocus Sativus corms (bulbs) to Australia. The corms produce little purple flowers with thin red stigmas. These stigmas, in their dry form, are saffron.

While predominantly used to flavour food, the spice has had a number of uses throughout history. It is said that it was employed to dye the robes of Irish kings and utilised by Alexander the Great to cure battle wounds.

A couple of thousands of years later, the Noonan’s home-based business, located in Glaziers Bay in southern Tasmania, co-ordinates the sole network of Saffron growers in Australia. There are currently 60 growers in the network here and in New Zealand. The Noonans employee 10 casual workers at the Glaziers Bay farm; most of them have been with the business for around a decade.

A recent yearly harvest resulted in six kilograms of saffron across the network; the stigmas of about 220,000 flowers make up just one kilogram of the spice. 

The business has grown substantially since it began, so much so that in the last couple of years demand has started to outstrip supply. 

Change of scenery

The decision to start a home-based business was not the initial reason Nicky and Terry moved to Tasmania.

Both worked 60-hour weeks in Sydney, Nicky as a personnel manager and Terry as a photographic technician. Eventually, they became “sick of the rat race”. 

“We decided to be sea changers when it wasn’t as trendy as it is now,” says Nicky. “We actually saw, to tell you the truth, the Today show being filmed from Tasmania for a month in Hobart and it just looked beautiful. So we literally gave about three months notice, got married, and got in the car and came down. But reality then set in.”

Opportunities in their previous areas of work were not available. Nicky started in administration at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Terry began working in appliance repairs. “Then the saffron came along,” says Nicky. 

Terry began to research whether the plant would grow in Australia, and with Nicky, commenced working on the saffron business part-time. 

“We brought [the saffron] in from the Northern Hemisphere, and we had to turn their clocks around to the Southern Hemisphere,” says Nicky.

Two-and-a-half years later, the first flower blossomed. 

For the first couple of years, they sold all their crop of saffron to Simon Johnson, before suffering a setback in 1995 when it rained non-stop for 10 months. They lost 90 per cent of the stock because the corms began to rot. The other 10 per cent had to be replanted as they were in the wrong type of soil.

Nicky and Terry realised if the business was going to succeed, they needed to set up other growers to “spread the risk so to speak”. Three initial growers eventually grew to ten growers in Tasmania and kept getting bigger. It was at this point they began to work on the business full-time. 

The `key`, Nicky says, was that the saffron had to be top grade. Tas-Saff produces extra category one saffron under the International Organisation of Standardisation. The business is working with the University of Tasmania, the research being funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, to ensure quality remains the best it can be.

Planning is key

Today, Nicky works on the marketing and sales side of the business rather than picking and packing saffron. Terry looks after the scientific and growing part of the business.

“In the early days in business, a lot of your money, all your money that you earn, has to go back into the business if you’re going to take it from – for us what was a cottage industry – to the commercial stage,” she says.

With some marketing assistance, they made a funding submission to the ‘Innovations Program’ promoted by the Tasmanian State Government Department of Economic Development. It was successful and as a result, they could build the premises at Glaziers Bay.

After winning the Jaguar award for excellence in 1999, they were put in contact with “some of the best chefs in Australia” and the network jumped the Bass Strait into Victoria and New South Wales.

Soon after, Nicky and Terry met John Accardo from Hoyts Food Industries, who now handles distribution of the saffron. “When you are supplying to companies such as Woolworths and Coles, you’ve got to be right up there and stay on the ball the whole time,” she says. 

Distribution was one of the initial major hurdles the business had to overcome because they did not have marketing experience. 

Nicky stresses it is crucial to get experts in where knowledge is lacking, and to form good business relationships with them. 

And like all home businesses, a balance between work and family life is essential.

With the office attached to the house, Nicky says it’s necessary to sometimes “shut the door and say enough’s enough, and lock it”. 

“Even though it’s a small business, you still have to do all those other things that a big business would do. It’s just on a smaller scale,” says Nicky. “You’ve got to be strict and mange your time well,” she says. 

“Set your goals, just like you were going to the office. When you get into that office, you would have goals there that were set for you by your boss. Here, you’re working for yourself. You’ve got to set yourself goals. Short-term goals, and long-term goals. Daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, and annual goals. Otherwise, you will fail.”

Forward thinking

It’s also crucial to have plans in place, “marketing plans, business plans, exit plans, everything”.

“You need to put down on paper what you want to achieve so you can revisit it in a year’s time and monitor your goals that you set,” she says.

Nicky says they work 12 to 24 months in advance with everything they do in the business.

But the benefits of having a home-based business are numerous. Nicky says having her “family on the spot” is great. This was important especially when her son, who is now 13, was growing up. “I remember picking a crop with him in the pram. He’s been there right the way through this.”

Nicky is also happy to be her own boss. Being able to put into practice the skills learnt in previous careers and see the achievements and rewards eventuate “is terrific”. 

The business and the saffron network continues to grow. But come retirement, Nicky says they will remain in Glaziers Bay and the business will be sold and moved elsewhere.

For now however, a measured approach remains key. “The network is still not huge, because we’ve really taken a slow and steady approach to this, not wanting to flood the market at all. But we’re in a very, very strong position right at this stage,” says Nicky.

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