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Ontario Lavender-058-4

Victor Visiting Farm in Ontario

Victor Gonzales planted his first lavender plant in 1997. Today, he owns and operates Victor’s Lavender, where he propagates lavender for sale throughout North America. Years of growing lavender presented him opportunities to find out for himself what works and what doesn’t. A sought-after speaker, Victor imparts his knowledge at conferences, in demonstrations and on his CD (available here). He also consults with growers to help them increase lavender production. His outgoing personality and generous spirit have led him to Lebanon and Morocco to share his knowledge.

According to Scott Nagel, Executive Director of the Sequim Lavender Farmers Association, “Victor’s success stems from three attributes: a strong work ethic, a friendly and giving personality and deep knowledge of lavender production.”

Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Victor was the second youngest of 12 brothers. When Victor was ten years old, his father went to California for work.  In 1986 when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Act, the entire family moved to California. Victor was 15 years old.

 Victor’s first job there was picking fruit in the San Joaquin Valley. The work was hard, and the conditions difficult. Eventually he landed a job in a packing plant. “I was happy to work inside an air-conditioned building, finally out of the hot sun,” Victor said.

Everything was going well, and then Victor seriously injured a leg playing soccer. That accident cost him his job. His recovery would take months. He didn’t want to return to picking fruit in the hot sun, so when his brother-in-law told him about job opportunities in Sequim, Washington, Victor along with his wife and young son moved north.

Victor Checks Temperatures for his Plants

Victor Checks Temperatures for his Plants

Small Cuttings Grow Roots in Victor's Greenhouse

Small Cuttings Grow Roots in Victor’s Greenhouse

“I love Sequim. The mild temperatures remind me of my village in Mexico,” said Victor.  At first, he worked three jobs: growing garlic, running a U-Pick operation at Graysmarsh Farm (a berry farm) and waited tables at Los Palomas. He also did occasional painting, construction and the odd handy-man job.

Soon, Victor accepted a job at Sequim Valley Ranch. The wealthy owner, who lived most of the year in Hawaii, had hired a manager to clean up the place – fix broken windows, paint and clear debris. Based on word-of-mouth, the manager phoned Victor.

Soon the place was looking good. And then one day, the manager who was looking for a way to start a money-making operation, asked Victor, “Can you grow lavender?”

“What’s lavender?” Victor asked.

“It’s a plant.”

“If it’s a plant, I can grow it,” answered Victor.

Victor began with 300 plants. Within weeks, all the plants died. Victor explained, “We were doing everything wrong. The soil was too heavy; we used too much fertilizer and too much water.”

Then they planted 1000 more plants, about 50% died.

Victor was watching and learning about the optimal conditions for lavender such as soil type, watering, fertilizer and which varieties would thrive in Sequim’s growing conditions. He saw every failure as a learning opportunity, like a mystery to solve.

His next challenge was working out successful propagation strategies. He needed a greenhouse and improvised by taking off the roof of an old garage and replacing it with plastic. “I took cuttings, and they all died. I needed a real greenhouse so I could control temperature and humidity.”

The manager got Victor a greenhouse. Victor took 20,000 cuttings and planted them in 2 ½ inch pots in light soil. After several weeks, half died.

 “I consulted with other lavender growers, the WSU Extension office and other horticulture specialists. That’s when I decided to take my own chances and listen to my own mind. I did five tests and recorded the results. I checked on the plants everyday – learning about soil types, potting hormones, greenhouse setups and irrigation methods. I learned that lavender requires dry heat near the roots. The rate of survival improved. We were selling plants and the operation was named Sequim Valley Lavender.”

Victor in Lavender Field

Victor in Lavender Field

By 2001, Sequim Valley Lavender was growing 50,000 plants and sold $200,000 worth of live plants to nurseries, according to Betty Openheimer’s book, “Growing Lavender and Community on the Sequim Prairie.”

Victor became the farm manager at Sequim Valley Lavender. One of the early customers and now CEO (Chief Education Officer) at Growing Lavender Plants, Susan Harrington, recalled meeting Victor. “It was 2002, and I was buying lavender starts to plant in my backyard. Victor was helpful. He shared  the lessons that he learned from his mistakes.”

Victor's Greenhouse: Perfect for Cultivating New Lavender Starts from Cuttings.

Victor Shows Kathy his New Lavender Babies – All Healthy & Happy in his Greenhouse

When Sequim Valley Lavender closed door in 2004, Victor’s previous customers tracked him down. They wanted to order his lavender plants. That’s when he began his own propagation business, naming it, what else, but “Victor’s Lavender.” Today, he has four greenhouses, and they are full of lavender plants.

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Speaking at conferences about growing lavender, Victor always gets rave reviews. Victor begins by telling his audience, “I’ve made every mistake possible, before I learned how to grow lavender.” In the last few years, Victor spoke at many event including: Ontario Lavender Conference (2012), Sequim International Lavender Conference (2012), Northwest Regional Lavender Conference (2011), New Mexico State University’s National Immigrant Farming Initiative (2011) and  Sequim’s 1st International Lavender Conference (2000).

Recently, Victor entered the retail market. A popular Sequim farm, Moosedreams Lavender Farm, announced its closure as of January 31, 2012. The owners, Elizabeth Norris and Barbara Landbeck, wanted to retire and, at the same time, were looking for a way to continue their organic and earth-friendly product line. They gave Victor their formulas and recipes and shared their production techniques.  

Victor's Products-003

Order Victor’s Body MIst for Men or his Body Goatmilk Creme – Great Valentine Gifts

Victor provides these lotions, soaps, and creams to retail customers with the Victor’s Lavender label. He also provides these products to his wholesale customers and, if they prefer, will use their private labels. Victor has a talent for finding “win-win” outcomes: He needs a more steady revenue stream, and his wholesale customers are looking for lavender-inspired, eco-friendly products.

What’s ahead for Victor’s Lavender in 2013?

Give yourself a treat, and find an opportunity to meet Victor. Be sure to tell him Kathy sent you and you will receive a 10% discount. You can also find him on his website: Victor’s Lavender.

Victor spent years learning about growing lavender, however, he already knew the formula for success in his life: a generous spirit, hard work and a loving family.

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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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Lilla's Lavender Water in Blue Bottle

Early August is when I met Cece. I was visiting the St. Johns Farmers Market on a Saturday afternoon. When I spotted the booth with the banner “Lilla Lavender”, I went right over to see what they were selling.

Cece and her husband Ray were busy talking with customers. During a lull in the steady stream of customers occurred, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.

“Our farm is located only a few miles away,” Cece said. “It’s a small organic lavender farm situated on a gentle southwest slope with a view of the coastal mountain range.”

Cece asked me about my interest in lavender. “I wrote a cookbook called “Discover Cooking with Lavender” and I’m here today to sign books at the St. John’s Booksellers,” I explained.

As we continued our conversation about cooking with lavender, Cece asked me how I make Lavender Syrup. “I take a cup of water, a cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of dried lavender buds, blend them in a small sauce pan and…..,” I went on.

Cece reached for a blue bottle, labeled Lavender Water. She handed it to me. “Here I want you to have this,” she said. “I use it to make lavender syrup. I find when I use this lavender water to make syrup, the flavor is consistent. Never too strong or too weak, just right. Try it and let me know what you think.”

I knew lavender water was a byproduct of the distillation process. Lavender plant material including both leaves and flowers are harvested and cooked in a large container. The heat and steam cause the plant’s glands to erupt and release their essential oils. Because the oil is lighter than water, when the steam condenses, the oil rises to the top and separates from the water. The remaining water is known as Lavender Water or hydrosol.

Hydrosol is frequently used to spray on sunburns, to add to your bathwater or to soothe an itch.  This was the first I heard of using it to cook with. I was intrigued.

I added 2 ounces to a cup of water and poured it over ice. The drink was too strong, it tasted bitter. I guess I overdid it with the lavender. The next drink I made I used 1 tablespoon with 1 cup of water, poured it over ice. This time it was just right. When I do make syrup, I will use with these proportions: 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon lavender water and 1 cup of sugar.

Thank you, Cece! Discover cooking with lavender has taken on a new meaning since I met you.

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In early August, my husband John and I made a trip to Ashland, Oregon. While we were there I was scheduled to do a cooking demonstration at the best culinary store in the area, Allyson’s Kitchen. This amazing store is a “must see” if you are visiting Ashland. With its extensive wine selections, gourmet deli and dining room, this shop is perfect for food-lovers.

About a week before our trip, Deborah Thompson of Applegate Valley Lavender Farm emailed me. She told me her farm was located just outside of Ashland and she would be providing Allyson’s Kitchen with culinary lavender for my presentation. Deborah wrote, “I will be providing the culinary lavender for your visit.  Which variety would you prefer to use and what is the quantity that you will need?”

I love discovering new lavender farms and  was eager to meet Deborah.  Right then, I knew I would not miss the opportunity to visit her farm.

As I opened the car door, the heat blasted me. Temperatures Landscape near Ashlandin Ashland were in the nineties and climbing. The thirty-five mile drive to Applegate allowed me to see the brown parched hills, vineyards and ranch land in the Applegate Valley. This landscape with its sunny climate, rocky dry soil and it well-drained hillsides was made  for growing lavender, so I was surprised I didn’t see more of it along the highway. Just then, I spotted several neat rows on a farm on the left. I pulled into the driveway.

A woman with curly strawberry blonde hair waved to me from the field. “Welcome to Applegate Valley Lavender Farm,” she said with an engaging smile. As I stepped out of the car, the sweet fragrance of the lavender  greeted me. Deborah offered me a cold glass of lavender lemonade and led me on a tour of her farm.  A strong wind blew as we walked around the farm. “We planted our first 150 plants in 2005. As for varieties, we grow grosso and royal velvet,” she said. “We are a startup lavender farm.” Deborah joined the Oregon Lavender Association, attending her first lavender festival this summer.

New Lavener Plants

Deborah pointed out new lavender plants she would be planting this fall.  The farm also sells a variety of gift items like these darling teddy bears.

Applegate Valley Lavender Gifts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pet SheepAfter introducing me to her dog and her pet sheep, we talked about the potential for this region. Deborah told me her dream for the Applegate Valley is for it to become a popular tourist destination. She sees the burgeoning wine industry and lavender as opportunities for economic development. Deborah realizes this is a tough economy in which to start a new business, however she has a beautiful property, a clear vision and lots of determination.

Next summer, I am looking forward to visiting Southern Oregon again and hoping Deborah and I can team a summer cooking session at Allyson’s Kitchen!

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