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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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Susan Harrington

Susan Harrington might be the most satisfied executive in the Pacific Northwest. Eight years ago, she left 20 years of business leadership behind and followed the lure of lavender. Today she along with her husband and business partner, Jack (The Assistant Lavender Wrangler) manages Labyrinth Hill Lavender. Susan is doing what she was meant to do. She is a lavender grower, CEO (Chief Education Officer) and marketing professional.

Susan Harrington visited Sequim in 2000, one week before the Sequim Lavender Festival. Susan and Jack stopped at the gift shop at Purple Haze Lavender. “Michael Richter handed me a bundle of fresh lavender. I bought one small lavender plant, the cultivar was “Fred Boutin,” said Susan.  That was the moment when her dream of growing lavender took hold.
Susan completed the Master Gardener certification in 2001. She read and studied about growing lavender. Then in the spring of 2002, Susan removed the blackberry brambles and Scotch Broom and planted lavender in a labyrinth at her Hansville home located in Washington state on the northern tip of the Kitsap peninsula.

In the summer of 2003, Susan sold fresh bundles of lavender at the Farmers’ Market, joined Local Harvest and continued to cultivate her lavender.

In 2004, Susan began communicating with her customers, friends and fans by writing a newsletter. Susan made it her practice to send a note out several times each month, slowly and steadily Susan’s newsletter distribution list grew. She currently has more than 2500 regular readers who look forward to receiving what she calls “her purple prose.”

Susan, also, set up her website http://www.labyrinthhill.com/index.html and started an online store to market her lavender.

 

Labyrinth Hill Lavender

Always interested in sharing her knowledge, Susan developed and presented a course titled “Lavender: From Soil to Sachet.”  Susan taught this class at several northwest community colleges, and evolved this material into an online education opportunity. In the last few years, more than 400 people have completed her course. What Susan likes best about this is that the course now can be shared with people who live outside the Pacific Northwest and outside the United States, too. Her newest student lives in Nova Scotia. In late 2009, one of Susan’s Polish students translated her course into Polish. Susan created a website devoted to helping other people learn to grow lavender. The website is www.growinglavenderplants.com.

Susan’s title, C.E.O. – Chief Education Officer, is made for her. When Susan is not sharing her knowledge of growing and marketing lavender, she keeps to her CEO mission by speaking to gardening groups about creating labyrinths, spreading her knowledge of marketing and helping with Constant Contact email marketing software.

Now, Susan spends summers harvesting, shipping and caring for her lavender. She also is a popular speaker at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, the largest show of its kind on the West Coast. Her presentation, “Lavender is More than a Color,” attracted a full house in 2010. Her workshop for children, “Creating a Five Minute Greenhouse” is presented on the Sproutopia stage at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show captivating kids and parents alike. You won’t be surprised to learn that Susan has been invited back to speak at the 2011 Northwest Flower and Garden show. If you’ve missed past presentations, you will want to mark your calendar for February 23rd through 27th, 2011.

A few questions for Susan: 

What advice would you offer to people considering starting a lavender farm?

Start with less than 500 plants and learn as you grow. No book, no class, no mentoring will ever prepare you completely for the real experience of growing and marketing lavender. 

What has been your most challenging hurdle in your quest to be a successful lavender grower?

Deciding whether or not to grow by hiring employees. My husband and business partner, the Assistant Lavender Wrangler (Jack) and I made a conscious choice to remain small without employees. Instead we made the most use of technology to market our products.  

What is your favorite way to use lavender?

Hands down my favorite way to use lavender is to walk into the garden with scissors, cut a bundle, bring it into the house and place in a vase. For me it’s about the experience growing, harvesting and enjoying this fragrant herb in its most basic form.

 

 

 

 

 

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