Category: Plants

Touring Lavender Farms in the Midwest

Have you ever considered the journey of lavender, from farm to bottle? As an aromatherapist, I sometimes forget to appreciate the labor and dedication required to produce the essential oils that I use. In our fast-paced world, we’ve lost touch with the source of our food, herbs, and farm products, with only 2% of the US population being farmers or ranchers (n.d.).

My appreciation for the hard work and perseverance it takes to be a farmer stems from spending summers on my grandparents’ farm in east-central Minnesota. It’s crucial to support small-scale farmers and artisan producers who create our aromatherapy products. We can show our support by purchasing directly from them, visiting their farms, engaging with their social media, and shopping at markets where they sell.

Over the past few years, I embarked on a journey to learn more about lavender farming and distillation in the US. I visited farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kansas, where I witnessed live distillation and inhaled the herby floral scent of fresh lavender. We visited the farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota as a local group from the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA). These experiences deepened my understanding and appreciation of the essential oils that I use.

THE FARMS

The Lavender Barnyard – Farmington, Minnesota

The Lavender Barnyard farm in Farmington, Minnesota. Left: The barn in the yard with rows of lavender plants that have been harvested. Top right: Lavender plant waiting to be harvested. Bottom right: Lavender up close.
The Lavender Barnyard farm in Farmington, Minnesota. Left: The barn in the yard with rows of lavender plants that have been harvested. Top right: Lavender plant waiting to be harvested. Bottom right: Lavender up close.

Marie and Marty Schuhwerck are the proud owners of this idyllic small lavender farm situated just south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Marty spent his childhood playing on the farm next door, and now resides where Marie cultivates their beautiful lavender plants. This farm is an emerging lavender destination, and the sole producer of its kind in Minnesota. The inaugural harvest took place in 2021.

The farm is currently home to 250 plants, featuring four unique lavender cultivars – Phenomenal, Hidcote Blue, Edelweiss, and Gros Bleu. By 2023, they plan to introduce a fifth variety, the locally cultivated Cynthia Johnson, with a goal of expanding their collection to 400 plants. (M. Schuhwerck, personal communication, May 6, 2023).

During my visit to the farm in 2022, my friends and I were treated to a personalized farm tour and U-pick lavender cutting session. Despite the late season, we were still able to catch a few plants in bloom, and the experience was unforgettable.

After the tour, we got to explore the Laiterie farm store, which is situated in the old milk room on the side of the barn. The store was stocked with an impressive array of lavender products, including bath bombs, body butters, freshly cut and dried lavender bouquets, sachets, bath salts, sachets, and lavender gift boxes, which can also be purchased through a monthly subscription. Marie is a true champion of her local community, and her farm partners with other local vendors to offer unique experiences and events at the farm, as well as being a lavender source for other vendors like a tea company. Visitors can also find The Lavender Barnyard products at local shops and say hello to Marie at farmers markets and other boutique events.

Marie is always working on new projects and dreams to further transform her farm. One such project is the renovation of a pop-up camper called the Bud Mobile, which will soon become her mobile pop-up store. I can’t wait to see how the Lavender Barnyard continues to evolve and expand, and I encourage everyone to check it out for themselves.

New Life Lavender & Cherry Farm – Baraboo, Wisconsin

New Life Lavender and Cherry Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin with a lavender field full in bloom, The Secret Garden, and Owner Aron McReynolds talking about the varieties of lavender plants on the farm.
New Life Lavender and Cherry Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Top left: Lavender field in bloom. Bottom left: The Secret Garden and bee haven. Right: Owner Aron McReynolds explains the varieties of lavender on farm.

Aron and Laura McReynolds run a delightful family farm with over 14,000 lavender plants of more than 25 varieties. They carefully select and grow many culinary varieties dedicated to specific uses such as syrup, pie, ice cream, baking, and tea. Their farm store houses a commercial kitchen where they bake their signature lavender cherry pie and other lavender-based treats.

The Farm to Table Wagon Tour provides an exclusive look at the demonstration garden, wildflower sanctuary for bees, and additional lavender fields. The McReynolds’ three children have specific responsibilities on the farm and even provide demonstrations. Don’t miss the chance to visit the Secret Garden and discover the hidden haven of the bees.

Rowley Creek Lavender Farm – Baraboo, Wisconsin

Rowley Creek Lavender Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. A beautiful Aloha welcome and sign to the entrance of the farm. Fresh lavender harvested that day. Still set up for demonstration with hydrosol in jars.
Rowley Creek Lavender Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Top left: A beautiful Aloha welcome to the farm. Bottom left: Fresh lavender harvested that day. Right: Still set up for demonstration. The aroma was amazing, and I got to take some of that hydrosol home with me!

Kehaulani and AJ Jones, with their five children, operate an authentic lavender farm using “Aloha Sustained Agriculture” to sustain the land with love. The three hilly acres of land have over 23 lavender cultivars, and the Farm Cottage Boutique sells a variety of lavender-infused organic botanical skin care products, crafts, plants, and culinary products.

Kehaulani is a Certified Aromatherapist, natural skincare designer, distiller, and aspiring herbalist. She offers classes and beauty respites on the farm. Her favorite cultivar being Wyckoff for its sweet smell, deep purple color, sturdy long stems, and double bloom.

Starting at the rustic barn, we observed a live distillation demonstration with a majestic 30-liter alembic column still. The still’s seams were sealed up with rye flour dough (to prevent the steam from escaping during the distillation), the still was packed with fresh lavender, and then fired up. Eagerly anticipating the freshly distilled lavender hydrosol, we set out on our tour.

First we learned how to harvest lavender from the bush with a harvest knife in the organically grown lavender fields. Then we set out to explore the property which revealed a beautiful Class 2 trout stream, other plants, and animals like donkeys and bees.

Returning to the barn, the sweet floral scent of lavender hydrosol greeted us, with the run using about 30 plants for a couple of gallons of hydrosol and 1 oz. of essential oil. This made the issue of sustainability tangible, and the take-home gift of 1-oz. hydrosol was precious.

Washington Creek Lavender FarmLawrence, Kansas

Washington Creek Lavender Farm in Lawrence, Kansas. Lavender in full bloom, demonstration garden, and the drying room.
Left: Lavandula angustifolia var. Folate in full bloom. Top right: Demonstration garden with Owner Kathy on the mower. Bottom right: Drying room with an amazing aroma.

Kathy and Jack Wilson, the owners of Washington Creek Lavender Farm, gave me a personal tour of their hilltop fields where I saw a few lavender varieties starting to bloom. The farm is certified organic with over 6,000 plants and nine different varieties, labeled for easy comparison in a demonstration garden.

A calming aroma lingered in the large drying room, which housed a copper alembic still just outside and it was waiting for some plant material for a run.

Washington Creek’s lavender is used for culinary, hydrosol, soap, and various handmade products including eye pillows, dryer sheets, and sachets.

Evening Light Lavender Farm – Deer Park, Washington

I was able to have a conversation with a colleague and friend of mine, Sandra Shuff, the owner of Evening Light Lavender Farm. Sandra is a Certified Aromatherapist, Artisan Distiller, Regional Coordinator for the U.S. Lavender Growers Association, and a Regional Director for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

Her farm, which is located outside of Spokane, is USDA Certified Organic and boasts an impressive 21,000 plants with over 41 varieties of lavender. The lavender grown is considered “high altitude,” as it is grown above 2,500 feet in elevation. Along with lavender, Sandra also grows Rose Geranium, lilacs, herbs, and other flowers. (S. Shuff, personal communication, August 12, 2019).

Sandra has a passion for distillation, and her “copper family” includes four stills that she affectionately named Felicity, Sophia, Bernard, and Lily. She distills over 48 different botanicals, including six different citruses, and sells them in her farm store and online. With plans for a new distillation facility and a new 300 liter still, I was inspired to visit her farm in person and hope to make it someday soon.

LAVENDER 101

Kehaulani of Rowley Creek Lavender Farm, refers to lavender as “Mother Nature’s most versatile herb. Not only is it great in the garden, attracting many beneficial insects and birds; it is also a medicinal herb that has anti-microbial and anxiolytic properties, and it is amazing in skin care products with its ability to heal and repair damaged skin. The sky is the limit when it comes to creating things with lavender.”

Lavender Basics

Lavender is considered a culinary and medicinal herb that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has defined it as a specialty crop (USDA, n.d.). Experienced lavender growers suggest doing intensive research along with compiling a comprehensive business plan prior to starting out. Lavender farms in the U.S. are considered small scale with an emphasis on quality: specifically, in production, processing, and distillation.

It is common that a lavender grower will diversify, often adding value added products such as baked goods, crafts, body care products, and farm tours. Farming of lavender on an industrial scale usually happens outside of the U.S. (Michigan State University, 2018).

There are over 45 different species of lavender with over 450 varieties (Anderson, n.d.). It is important to know which species and cultivar you are working with. For instance, sometimes there is casual reference to “Lavender Grosso” as being a type of “lavender” grown on a farm. This could lead one to assume it is a variety of Lavandula angustifolia. However, the Latin binomial for “Lavender Grosso” is Lavandula × intermedia, which translates to the English name of lavandin.

Lavandin is a hybrid between the species Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia. It is therefore not a true Lavandula angustifolia, as you might first assume from the name “Lavender Grosso.” It is a different plant in terms of its botanical characteristics, cultivation, and harvesting needs. In addition, within these species there are different varieties or cultivars, sometimes with synonyms. For instance, Lavandula × intermedia var. Grosso could also be known by the synonym Lavandula × intermedia var. Dilly Dilly (McNaughton, 2000).

Lavender species and varieties are available in a large color palette. The leaves can be different shades of gray or green. The buds also vary in color from white, pale pink, deep violet, light blue, and light purple.

Propagation

Lavender should not be grown by seed due to cross-pollination by bees. Lavender can be propagated from cuttings from the plant. Some cultivars are easier to root than others. Growers take cuttings in the fall and grow them in a heated greenhouse over the winter to be ready for spring planting. Some types of lavender plants are protected by rights or patents, so check out your variety before propagating (McNaughton, 2000). You can also purchase plants in plugs, packs, or pots. If you do this, be sure to purchase healthy and disease-free plants.

Cultivation

The best place to purchase plants from is a lavender grower, or a nursery that specializes in lavender. It is important to select a variety that will survive in your area. I live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 4. The lavender farms in Baraboo, WI, are located in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5, but they’re only 10 miles away from Zone 4.

Some of the challenges to growing lavender in the Midwest are: the winter, wet conditions with the amount of rainfall received and the level of humidity experienced, and the soil quality – which is mainly clay. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is considered to be mostly hardy. If you’re trying to avoid winterkill, Lavandin var. Grosso may be a good choice (Lavandula × intermedia) (Adam & Rittenhouse, 2018). The typical lavender plant has a life span of about 8-12 years. You can start to harvest them when they’re three years old.

Lavender does best when the roots are somewhat dry, so being planted up on a hill with good draining soil is a must. It likes poor and rocky soil. Sometimes you may need a soil amendment, as well as covering the plants in the winter. Keeping the plants dry and happy also helps to reduce the potential for fungal infections and disease.

It might be a good idea to get your soil tested before planting, especially if you’re thinking about adding any additional fertilizer such as lime, or nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Sandra from Evening Light Lavender Farm encourages diligent record keeping including recording information about planting, watering, crop rotation, harvest, inventory, distillation, etc. (S. Shuff, personal communication, August 12, 2019).

Harvesting

How and when you harvest is going to be dependent on the end use (McNaughton, 2000). Lady J. from Rowley Creek Lavender Farm indicated that there is one key sign to know when the plant is ready for harvest. “If the bees are foraging on your lavender plant, then you’re nearly there. You’re almost ready to cut and harvest for steam distilling.” (K. Jones, personal communication, July 31, 2019).

Distilling

Lady J. and AJ of Rowley Creek Lavender Farm prefer to use a copper still as it makes a “sweeter hydrosol,” which has to do with a chemical process during distillation. This is due to the sulfur ions being removed from the hydrosol as it has been bound with the copper (Harman, 2015). Copper is preferred over stainless steel, especially for hydrosols, to avoid the still note (Harman, 2015).

Sandra of Evening Light Lavender Farm, talks about the “angel’s mist” which is the “first few vapors that come through just before the first drops [of essential oil]. It is the highest volatiles that cannot be captured. They are absolutely a taste of heaven as they excite all your senses immediately. It lasts but a few seconds but is worth the experience.” (S. Shuff, personal communication, August 12, 2019).

THE STORY OF LAVENDER

Visiting the lavender farms and talking to the growers was an eye-opening experience for me. It provided me with a greater understanding of how lavender is cultivated and how it is used to create essential oils and other products. The passion and dedication of these farmers were truly inspiring, and I gained a newfound appreciation for their work.

As an aromatherapist, this experience was crucial to my journey and work. It has motivated me to explore high-altitude lavender farms in other countries and attend more distillation workshops.

Whether you are an aromatherapist, herbalist, gardener, or simply someone who loves essential oils, I encourage you to take a closer look at the journey of lavender from farm to bottle. You can find lavender farms that are open to the public by visiting the United States Lavender Growers Association website. If you have the opportunity to visit one of these farms, I invite you to share your experience and photos with us. Let’s continue to support these dedicated farmers and enjoy the beauty and benefits of lavender.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

REFERENCES

Adam, K., Rittenhouse, T. (2018). ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). Lavender production, markets, and agritourism. https://attra.ncat.org/publication/lavender-production-markets-and-agritourism/

American Farm Bureau Federation. (n.d.). Our Food Link. https://www.fb.org/programs/womens-leadership-program/our-food-link/

Anderson, D. (n.d.). Lavender Varieties. Lavender Growers Association. https://uslga.memberclicks.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73:lavender-varieties&catid=24:lavender-101&Itemid=138

Bader, S. (2012). Lavender Lover’s Handbook. Timber Press, Inc.

Harman, A. (2015). Harvest to hydrosol: distill your own exquisite hydrosols at home. IAG Botanics LLC dba botANNicals

McNaughton, V. (2000). Lavender: the grower’s guide. Timber Press, Inc.

Michigan State University. (2018). Growing lavender: a curriculum for growers [PowerPoint slides].  https://www.canr.msu.edu/growinglavender/

United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). What is a Specialty Crop? https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/grants/scbgp/specialty-crop