Lavender blooming as a cash crop in Whatcom County
Photo by Paul Moore
Years ago while traveling in Provence, France, Deming resident Peggy Parker envied the rolling fields of lavender that dotted the countryside. The sweet smell and iconic straight rows of dense purple struck a chord with Parker.
“If I ever own land, I want that,” she recalled thinking to herself. “I was approaching my 50th birthday and I wanted lavender surrounding my house.”
Now Parker, 55, has her dream-come-true, minus the warm French climate.
With the unseasonable rain that dragged on through June, when lavender typically starts blooming, Parker’s one-acre lavender farm was a bit late to show its color.
Thankfully, lavender is a hearty plant. It typically enjoys drier soils, but once established on a raised bed or in a well-drained location, the plant can withstand months of rain. Unlike most edible crops, lavender is practically guaranteed to bloom as long as the sun eventually comes out. Once the weather warms up, the low bushy plants shoot up long stems with a cluster of purple flowers at the top.
Though not native to the Pacific Northwest, lavender can easily commiserate with local sun-worshipers: it’s not so much the rain, but the clouds, the sheer lack of sunshine, that will get to you.
Lavender needs sunshine to bloom and must have warm weather to draw the fragrant oils up to the top of the stem. Thus, when the lavender is looking luscious, it’s a sure sign that summer is here.
To market, to market
Now in her sixth year growing lavender, Parker will be making her first appearance at the Bellingham Farmers Market this summer, selling plants and fresh-cut stems.
“Let’s hope the English lavender will be ready by the first Saturday in July,” she said..
Selling lavender has blossomed into a viable second income for Parker. During regular business hours, she is the director of the trade group Halibut Association of North America — but any spare time she has she devotes to her plants.
At the market, Parker will be alongside fellow farmers Marv and Lynn Fast, who own Red Barn Lavender in Ferndale. The Fasts have been growing lavender for more than three years and have been actively marketing lavender products, such as lavender pepper.
The Fasts now have about 3,700 plants in 68 different varieties, each with its own distinct color and characteristics. Some bloom earlier than others, some grow taller and more vibrant. But they all give off that sweet lavender smell, which the Fasts extract using a large distiller.
“When we’re distilling, some people say they can smell it down the street,” Lynn said.
When the temperature is just right and the flowers are at peak bloom, Marv harvests large sections of lavender and transfers them immediately to the distiller, where they will sit for up to four hours. Steam is pumped into the drum, thus extracting the scent, then condensed and separated into the essential oil and hydrosol, which is water with a very small amount of oil in it.
“If it’s a good yield we get 8 to 12 fluid ounces of oil out of 75 pounds of lavender,” said Marv, who harvests the lavender by hand and will often spend 16-hour-days in the field when the flowers are ready. “It’s really dependent on the weather. In 2007, the oil-to-flower ratio was 60 percent of the year prior because of the weather. It should have been double the amount because we had twice as many plants.”
All that hard work pays off, though, in the form of lavender sprays and oils, lavender soaps and lotions, lavender honey and tea, which they sell from their farm and also on their Web site.
Photo by Paul Moore
Staking ground on agritourism
Beyond the market, lavender farming contributes to agritourism. This is the idea that the farm can be a tourist destination, not just a food factory. Visitors often learn about a certain crop, chat with the farmer and of course, stop by the gift shop.
The pressures of keeping up the public appearance of the farm can sometimes be a burden on working farmers, but the effort is well worth it, said Marv, who mows the immense lawn around the lavender field every week.
“The biggest thing small farms don’t do is attract their customers,” he said. “The focus is on growing the food and they don’t know how to greet the public.”
In order to get more exposure in the community, Red Barn Lavender offers onsite wreath-making classes and also hosts events such as Western Washington University’s SummerStock theater performances. The farm will also host its first wedding this summer.
The day-to-day visits are just as important as the major events, Marv said. Every chance to enhance a customer’s experience pays off in the long run.
“Sometimes we’ll show people around for a half-hour and they’ll buy a $4 plant — but it’s worth it,” Marv said.
For Parker, agritourism could be the next big thing out in her corner of the county. Parker said she has a hard time attracting passersby because of the farm’s remote location, but as tourism in the whole area increases she expects to see more people stopping by the farm to cut their own lavender or just soak in the surroundings.
“People like to come out here and just sit and drink lavender lemonade,” Parker said. “Then they walk up and down the rows and the plants brush up against their pants and they swoon over the smell.”
Look vs. smell
The attraction of lavender, from a tourism and a farming standpoint, is in its versatility. It has both a striking appearance and a desirable smell.
But which characteristic draws more visitors?
“People come for both,” Marv said, adding that lavender is unique in it’s versatile uses. “I can think of other purple flowers but none of them have any other uses like lavender. Plus the fragrance really captures people.”
Lavender is also easy to grow and requires very little upkeep aside from weeding, said Chuck Antholt, who grows lavender alongside his organic vegetables at his farm on Lummi Island.
“It’s easy to get started, but the hard part is keeping the weeds out,” he said. “The lavender bush is so dense and thick that after a day your hands are all cut up because you have to reach in there and grab the weeds by the root. It may be hard work but it’s the nicest smelling place to work.”
For several years, Antholt hosted a lavender festival at his farm in mid-July when the flowers are in full bloom. However, the festival became more work than the lavender, so he canceled it. But he still sells fresh lavender every summer from his farm, which looks south over the San Juan Islands.
Antholt, who teaches in the economics department at Western Washington University in the fall and winter, said he enjoys spending summers tending his lavender. Although it may not be a lucrative business, it carries the sweet smell of success.
“I’m an economist, I know this isn’t an economically viable operation, especially since land values on the island are expensive,” he said. “But for me it kinda works. I’m doing this because I like to do it.”
Visit the farms
- RiverScent Lavender: Take Hwy. 542 east, turn right on Hwy. 9, then left on Rutsatz Road. Follow signs. Call Peggy Parker at 592-3116.
- Red Barn Lavender: Go west on Main Street in Ferndale until it turns into Mountain View Road. Take a right on Barr Road, then a left onto Thornton Road. Visit www.redbarnlavender.com for more information.
- Lummi Island Lavender: From the Lummi Island Ferry dock, take a right onto North Nugent Road then a left on Centerview Road.