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In November 2012, I traveled to Canada to speak at the Ontario Lavender Conference. During this two-day gathering, I discovered a vibrant, inspiring and collaborative community of lavender enthusiasts.

         

Ontario Lavender

Ontario Lavender

Ontario’s lavender industry grew out of a small study group formed in 2003. Later in 2010, it blossomed into the Ontario Lavender Association. During this time, Ontario’s farmers were seeing a shift impacting farming opportunities.

  • Tobacco, which had been Southern Ontario’s leading horticultural cash crop, diminished. Demand plummeted due to health concerns, cigarette taxes and new government policies. In 1970, 3,000 farms grew tobacco in Canada; today the number has dropped to about 650.
  • Fruit orchards, burdened with high labor costs, struggled to compete with growers around the world. Prices dropped and income dwindled.
  •  Raising hogs no longer supplied enough revenue to cover costs.
The Lavender Farm owned by Bob & Barb Gilles

The Lavender Farm owned by Barb & Bob Gillies

The situation was clear. Some families who had farmed their land for generations needed to cultivate new crops. Farmers transitioned into various horticultural crops including grapes, a wide range of vegetables and other fruit crops.  Some Ontario farmers shifted to growing lavender.  

These farmers imagined a new industry. One that would use lavender in an array of value-added products such as soap, shampoo and seasonings, and at the same time attract tourists to visit their lavender fields during the summer bloom. Revenue would come from farm boutiques, tours and on-line shops. However, before purchasing and planting thousands of lavender plants, the growers wanted to feel confident that their plants would survive Ontario’s cold winters.

Bonnieheath Lavender Snuggled Up for Winter Weather

Bonnieheath Lavender Snuggled Up for Winter Weather

To discover which kinds could survive the winter, a trial tested 27 varieties at six sites in southern Ontario. Additional testing would evaluate lavender varieties to rate their visual beauty, oil quality and content and bloom time, for example how many weeks the bloom endures.

Chaired by Anita Buehner, who is co-owner of Bonnieheath Lavender, the Ontario Lavender Association obtained a research grant from the Sand Plains Community Development Fund. The money would fund research to find suitable lavender varieties for Ontario’s growing conditions. Growers who hosted the trials paid the cost of the plants; and the University of Guelph, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and Erie Innovation and Commercialization provided support. Growers, government ministries, industry associations and academia, all worked together to launch Ontario’s lavender industry.

Working Together to Grow Ontario Lavender

Working Together to Grow Ontario Lavender

Research will continue for three years. Additional funding came from OMAFRA New Directions Research Fund. A detailed report summarized the findings related to the survivability  of lavender varieties.  This report is available on the  Ontario Lavender Association’s. According to the report, “…lavandins did not survive as well as angustifolias.” and “The highest rated angustifolias were Folgate, Betty’s Blue, and Blue River ….”

 The Ontario Lavender Association now has 25 members, and in November 2012, hosted its first Ontario Lavender Conference. Jan Schooley, owner of Apple Hill Lavender, and Dr. Sean Westerveld, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, co-chaired the event. The agenda focused on “The Business of Lavender.”

Ontario Lavender Conference

Kathy Gehrt Celebrates Ontario’s Lavender Conference

Seventy-four people went to the conference. Attendees included growers, artisans, and research professionals. Most participants came from Canada; however several growers traveled from Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania to learn about Ontario’s lavender experience. Mary Tate Bergstrom represented the United States Lavender Growers Association.

Echo Lane Lavender's Display at Ontario Lavender Conference

Echo Lane Lavender’s Display at Ontario Lavender Conference

When I read about a banquet with “lavender-inspired culinary delights,” I was intrigued. Lavender played a leading role in the menu. Green salad served with savory dressing demonstrated lavender’s ability to accentuate the fresh flavor of vegetables. The main course, chicken, mashed potatoes and cauliflower, combined many flavors. Herbes de Provence, a blend of herbs such as lavender, rosemary, basil and thyme, seasoned the potatoes perfectly. The finale, mixed berry trifle with lavender-infused cream, silenced the room as diners relished the flavor. 

 

Pat Earls, an Ontario Lavender Association member and owner of Lavenders of Norfolk, created the recipes, and the chef received kudos for his preparation. This banquet not only exceeded my expectations, it provided positive proof of lavender’s culinary versatility. (Thank you to Pat Earls for sharing her recipes and giving me permission to share them on my blog:  Lavender Salad Dressing, Herbes de Provence Mashed Potatoes and Lavender Berry Trifle.

After dinner I gave the keynote presentation, “Lavender Business Models from around the World.” Farms I featured included:Ali’i Kula Lavender, Bridestowe Estate, White Oak Lavender Farm, Forest Green Man Lavender, and Becker Vineyards. Each of these farms exemplifies successful agri-tourism strategies.

The next morning I talked about the culinary connection. My topic was how to use culinary lavender to stir up profits. As a foodie, I especially like to discuss flavor combinations. This presentation generated a good discussion. Questions ranged from “Can lavender stems be used in cooking?” to “Have you experimented with hydrosol to flavor food?” I can’t wait to try these ideas, and when I do, I will post the results on my blog.

On the drive to the airport for my flight back to Seattle, I felt honored to have been a speaker at this event. I’d met new lavender growers, and I was inspired by their resilience and enthusiasm. I don’t know whether lavender will replace the income lost from tobacco, fruit and hogs; however I do know the Ontario growers will transform their region into purple fields of lavender in the summer season.

I am already planning my return to Ontario; but my next trip will be in summer when lavender will be in full bloom.

         

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Red Barn in Field of Lavender

Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm during 2011 Sequim Lavender Farm Faire

During Sequim’s lavender celebration, I visited Sunshine Herb and Lavender Farm to demonstrate some recipes from my book, “Discover Cooking with Lavender.” Busy talking and signing books, I didn’t have time then to discover the story behind this place. I barely noticed the lavender plants lined up like soldiers in a parade and saluting their fans with purple flowered stems.

Months later when Scott Nagel called to invite me to speak at the upcoming International Lavender Conference (April 2012), I became curious about how Sunshine Farm became a tourist destination for thousands of people from all across the country and beyond.

Summer at Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm

Picture Perfect

Agritourism is emerging as a popular way to see working farms, to understand local agriculture and to discover regional cuisines. Sunshine Farm has achieved success in this new industry. I wanted to learn what made this farm so popular.

To find out, I returned and spent an early October morning with the farm’s owners, Steve and Carmen Ragsdale. I learned that their formula for success depended on their planning, preparation and passion. Their top ten tips are listed below.

1.      Do your homework. Set your goals. Prepare a business plan. Get help if you need it.

  • To help them develop their plans and meet their goals, Steve and Carmen engaged the volunteers at SCORE – a free consulting service that is part of the Small Business Administration.
  • Their goal was to own and operate a lavender farm that would attract tourists.

2.    Build on your experience, skills and personal style.

  • Carmen owned and operated beauty salons for 38 years. She had experience creating products using herbs and oils, and she was skilled in customer service.
  • Steve, a naval architect and engineer, understands machinery and planning.
  • Even before they devoted themselves to Sunshine Lavender, Steve and Carmen grew lavender on the hillside of their Port Orchard property.

3.    Take one step at a time.

  • The Ragsdales acquired their property in 2000 and developed their farm in phases: Finding the site, preparing the soil, planting lavender, building greenhouses, propagating plants, creating products for their gift shop, and in 2006 their farm became part of the Sequim Lavender Farm Tour.

4.    Select the right site. For lavender, that means soil that is well-drained and slightly alkaline and a site that offers full sun. If you intend to attract visitors, look for a site that is visible and easily accessible. Check out zoning laws and permit requirements.

  •  After searching for two years, the Ragsdales found their 10 acre site, just off highway 101, about 10 miles east of Sequim. Their farm is the first one you see when you drive towards Sequim.

 

Sign for Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm

This Great Sign Makes it Easy to Find Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm

5.    Make sure your signs are easy to read, and your farm is listed in visitor guides, tourist attractions and in local papers.

  • A large sign makes it easy to find Sunshine Herb and Lavender Farm. Commanding attention, the big red barn and white picket fence can be seen from the highway. In summer, the purple rows of lavender beckon to passersby.

6.  Remember your farm is a stage. Keep it looking neat and uncluttered. Make it inviting, with clearly marked paths, places to sit so your guests can relax and take in the beauty.

  • Sunshine Herb and Lavender Farm reminds me of a palace garden. Carmen and Steve understand they are in the agritourism business, a blend of agriculture, tourism and entertainment. Their visitors expect an unforgettable experience. When you walk around this place, you  feel like you’re in paradise.

    Colorful Andirondack chairs offer place to rest

    Adirondack Chairs Invite Visitors to Sit and Enjoy the Lavender

7.    Make sure your plants look their best. That means replacing plants that become stressed. Lavender is the star of the show, every plant must look lush!

  •  This fall, Steve, Carmen and family  will replace 4000 plants with ones they propagated in their greenhouses. This takes all hands on deck.  (The stress was due to excessive rain in 2011. Due to la Nina weather pattern, in 2011 Sequim received over 60 inches compared to an average of only 15.)

 

Lavender Season at Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm

Lavender Season at Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm

8.    Place signs in the lavender fields describing the different varieties giving a brief summary of its characteristics.

  •  Sunshine Herb and Lavender Farm has more than 8000 lavender plants in its fields with some 65 varieties. Visitors can easily read about the various types and learn about their size and color.

 

Melissa - Angustifolia Cultivar - Thriving at Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm

Melissa - Angustifolia Cultivar - Thriving at Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm

9.    Develop a unique and attractive array of gift items.

  • Carmen began developing bath and beauty products when she operated her salon. Now, she creates soaps, face creams, hand lotion and more using the lavender oil that Steve distills from their harvest. What lavender oil they don’t use in their products, they bottle and sell in their gift shop.
  • By tweaking family recipes and experimenting with lavender in the kitchen, Carmen wrote three cookbooks. In the gift shop, she offers her own line of culinary products from culinary lavender buds to salad dressings and seasonings.

10.   Have fun. Don’t get too busy to stop and smell the lavender.

Steve and Carmen Ragsdale with their dog, Sugar

Steve & Carmen along with their dog, Sugar

  • Steve and Carmen enjoy working together and caring for their farm and it shows in the relaxed atmosphere that makes Sunshine Lavender such a special place.
  • Taking a leadership role in the lavender community, Steve has been elected president of the newly formed Sequim Lavender Farmers Association. The association is hosting an International Lavender Conference in 2012. The keynote speaker will be Tim Upson, author of “Lavandula, The Genus” considered the bible for lavender growers.

Agritourism, still an emerging industry, comes in many forms. Wine-tasting, corn mazes, pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms attract people who want to escape from their everyday routine and get a glimpse of another world. At Sunshine Herb and Lavender Farm, visitors discover the beauty of lavender and enjoy the gracious hospitality of Carmen and Steve Ragsdale.

 

 

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