Lavender Farming... A New Beginning

Lavender Farming... A New Beginning

After working for years on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill response and subsequent contracts, we decided it was time to take a few risks and pursue alternate ways of making a living.  Doug is still working full time, and I am taking care of babies (Soleil – 6 years and Bruce – 6 months), and we are longing to find ways to free up our schedules… and our lives for that matter. We have always admired farmers.  Doug is from a family of farmers, and to us… they just seem to have it figured out.  I come from a family of artists, my father is a potter and my mother is a painter.  Both of us grew up watching our parents run their own businesses, so we have come by the entrepreneurial bug honestly at least.

But why lavender?  Well we love it for one.  It is one of our favorite natural products, and we have been buying soaps, oils, and even fresh bundles at farmers markets for years. We first got the idea from a lavender farmer at the Bloomington farmers market.  He said he had gotten plugs from the northwest, and he made it sound so blissfully easy. 

Yet, the decision to plant a large amount of lavender raises a host of questions.  What type of lavender, where to plant, how much, how to prep the ground, cost, irrigation needs, plant sourcing, field security and more! Where to begin? Well… at the beginning works pretty nicely.  We had a little savings, and Doug’s family still has a lot of beautiful farm land, and that was enough to inspire a start.

Site selection was pretty simple.  Doug’s father agreed to let us use a portion of the family ground for the venture.  An old farmstead had about a half of an acre of barn lot and yard that had not been tilled for conventional row cropping.  Fortunately, this land had been tiled (a process that places drainage tubing under the soil), and there was a natural spring-fed cistern in that area. The cistern (the green pin) may be leveraged as an on-site water source, if needed. 

Species and Quantity

Our next step was to decide on how many to plant and what species, which ironically was made easy for us as well.  With some research we had learned that the ‘Grosso’ variant (Lavendula x intermedia cv.) was the most amenable to our climatic zone as well as an overall good oil producer.  Oil production is something that is of interest to us, but more so, potentially of interest to the market.  The reason it was made easy for us was our lack of planning from the previous year.  Most growers (Vis a Vis greenhouses) grow their seedlings on contract.  Purchasing large quantities of lavender from any grower, therefore, usually requires a contract order the fall before the planting.  The one grower that we found that did have stock for sale was an organic farm in Washington State, Purple Haze Lavender Farms, and the variant that they had available was Grosso!  We put in an order for 300 plants – set to yield some the following year.  This is the biggest reason that we chose to go with cutting based plants as opposed to growing from seed.  Lavender takes 2 seasons before you should take a product from it, and it can be fussy to germinate.

Planting Equipment

When prepping to plant, our research showed that lavender prefers to have dry feet.  That is to say that it needs to be hilled (bedded) for appropriate drainage, which is another reason why we were fortunate to have the land tiled.  We already had a tractor and tiller to help with some of the hard work.  Jessica often talks highly of the virtue in hoeing rows, but hoeing enough rows for 300 plants would be a bit beyond its virtue point for me.  Luckliy, there’s an implement for that.

Our tractor is a John Deere 4400 compact utility tractor and the tiller is a 5ft 3 point PTO driven unit.  There's a story in how we came about purchasing that as well, but I'll spare you the digression!

The one implement that we did not have was a hiller (bedder).  This was going to be essential to quickly planting any quantity of plants.  After some research, we found a model that was able to be shipped to our door as a standard parcel and not freight, which saved a fair amount of cost.  We elected to get the bare bones model.  They offer additional bits, such as a furrowing blade, which puts a groove in the center of the hill, but we are not quite to a bells and whistles stage yet.  I’m just happy to not be honing my virtues through the endless hoeing of rows. ;)

Plants Arrive

Boxes upon boxes arrived one day in June, two flats of eighteen per box. We promptly unboxed the plants, but with a lot of rain on the forecast were reluctant to put them out in the weather.  We decided to plant as soon as we could, and with the 4th of July coming up, it meant that our holiday weekend would be busy!

We did our best to not overwater them, and it seems we were successful.  We made sure that they were all well placed in their flats and moved them out to the sun daily.  All of the other big items arrived as well, rolls of landscaping fabric, boxes of stakes, even the bedding implement for the tractor.  Needless to say, we ended up with some pretty strange looks from the mailman.


Time to Plant

Planting day was here in a blink. We loaded up the kids, the plants, the tractor, the hiller, the tiller, the fabric, the stakes… somewhere along the way we decided caravanning vehicles was a must.  We had spent the evening before at our friends annual Independence Day party, and the timing felt perfect.  Doug had a stroke of genius last minute and ran into the shop. A few loud noises later he came out with a jig for plant spacing (basically a wooden L-shape) and chalk.  When we got there, we also borrowed some heavy duty scissors and a couple of 2 pound hammers, and we were set!

Planting


Doug’s dad arrived shortly after we got the first few rows of fabric down.  I will never forget the way he looked.  He set about his work quietly, donning a woven straw hat with a dignified straight brim.  He moved from plant to plant, kneeling over each spot and setting the little plants in their new homes.  We did not expect him to come help, but help he did, and we are truly grateful.

We used the spacing jig and chalk to mark all the plant spots once the fabric was down.  Towards the end, we got into a rhythm of getting the planting down in a bit of an assembly line.  This really increased our efficiency, and we were both quietly thanking Mr. Ford for his fabulous idea long ago.  The first setup had the planter cutting the cloth (about 6”x6”) and digging the hole with their hands.  They would pull the plant from the pot and somewhat loosen the root ball and place the plant in the hole.  They would then bed the plant with the dirt that was removed to form the hole making sure to not put the plant in a depression.  This is especially important with lavender as it can be killed by molds due to wet conditions.  This process required moving tools (scissors) and picking up the plastic pots and getting up and sitting down to do this process.  We eventually found that pulling the pots when placing the first time was best.  We also found that cutting all of the holes was best next, then planting didn’t require sitting down to get the job done.  Things went quite quickly after we figured this process out.

First Visit

We live a fair piece from the farm, so we don’t get to visit it that often. We do have family close by, and they check on it periodically, which is a huge help.  The night before our last visit, the weather dropped a couple of inches rain very quickly.  We were pretty worried as we drove up, but when we walked on the exposed dirt, we didn’t pick up much mud on our shoes.  This told us that our drainage was working perfectly well.

When we cut the holes in the cloth, we didn’t do much more than two cuts in a criss-cross (following the chalk marks usually).  After looking at a lot of the plants barely peeking out of the cloth sometimes, we decided to add pins to the cloth in some places and cut the hole out more.  We did this to keep the cloth from contacting the base of the plants to discourage mold growth and encourage air flow.

Conclusion

Before we started, we did a lot of research.  We learned about how hard lavender can be to start from seed, how fussy it is about overwatering, and which varieties are more likely to be hardy in the Indiana winter.  Luckily, the land was available and prime and the plants were available from a grower.  The initial investment was doable, but as with most things, it is more expensive than you expect.  All in all we have about $2000 in the planting process.  We are also probably going to be adding a fence for some security and aesthetic improvement.  We are currently considering a split rail fence.  This would only keep honest people honest, but would greatly add to the visual appeal of the area.

The planting involved several days of hard work.  This is particularly beautiful work though.  Even though they don’t have flowers yet, the little plants are filled with lavender oil.  Every time you touch them, they give back a burst of their fragrance.  It’s a little gift that makes the sweat and toil in the dirt a little sweeter throughout the day.  We couldn’t have done it without the help of family to take care of the kiddos and even help put baby plants in the ground. Here’s to hoping… and working… for a bright future, filled with purple.

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