Touring Lavender Farms in the Midwest

What is lavender’s journey? How does the plant get from the lavender farm and into the bottle? When you open a bottle of lavender essential oil, what is the first thing that you notice? Do you notice the aroma? Or do you immediately think about the immense dedication it takes to create it? Even though I am an aromatherapist, I sometimes forget to stop and appreciate the labor and commitment that goes into producing the aromatherapy products that I use.

It seems that in today’s fast-paced world, we’ve forgotten about the source of our food, herbs, and farm products. Thus losing the subsequent connection with nature. In addition, our agricultural landscape is changing. The American Farm Bureau Federation states that only 2 percent of the U.S. population are farmers or ranchers (n.d.). They also report that the average American is now at least 3 generations from the farm.

As a child, I was blessed to be able to spend the summers at my grandparents’ small farm in east-central Minnesota. I still carry with me the awareness and the appreciation for the work and perseverance it takes to be a farmer.

I believe that it is important for us to support the hard-working people who produce our aromatherapy products: farmers, growers, harvesters, and distillers. This is easier to do when we connect with small scale farmers and artisan producers.

We can show support by purchasing from them directly, shopping at the markets they sell to, engaging with their social media accounts, and my personal favorite, by playing the role of agritourist by visiting their farms.

Several years ago, I started on a journey to find out more about the people and the processes behind growing and distilling lavender in the U.S.. I longed to see the mounds of purple lavender set out in rows, and inhale that herby floral scent while walking through the fields. I also hoped to witness a live distillation, and experience the aroma coming out fresh from the still.

The lavender farms that I visited in person were in the Midwest. The first lavender farm that I visited was in Kansas. I also toured three different lavender farms in Wisconsin with the Minnesota Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) group. Lastly, I had auditory tour and conversation with a lavender grower that is from the Pacific Northwest (Washington).

THE FARMS

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.

The owners of Washington Creek Lavender Farm, Kathy and Jack Wilson, are a kind and jovial couple, who invited me out for a personal tour of their hill top fields. I had no idea what to expect, as this was my first visit to a lavender farm. Though it was early in the season, a couple of lavender varieties were already starting to bloom.

The farm is organically certified with over 6,000 plants. They have nine different varieties of lavender. There is a demonstration garden with several of the varieties labeled so that you can see the differences and similarities between the plants. I walked through a large drying room which I felt had an extremely calming aroma, still lingering from the previous season’s harvest. Just outside of the drying room sat a copper alembic still, just waiting for some plant material.

The lavender that the farm grows is used for a variety of purposes: culinary, hydrosols, soaps, and other handmade products such as eye pillows, dryer sheets, and sachets.

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.

This is a delightful family run farm owned by Aron and Laura McReynolds. They have 14,000 lavender plants with over 25 different varieties, many of which are used for culinary use. They have a commercial kitchen in their farm store, and therefore they’re able to bake their signature lavender cherry pie along with other lavender based goodies. They select and grow specific culinary varieties with dedicated uses in mind; syrup, pie, ice cream, baking, tea, etc.

The Farm to Table Wagon Tour provides an exclusive look at the demonstration garden, the wildflower sanctuary for bees, and some additional lavender fields. Each of their three children have a particular responsibility on the farm, and they also provided demonstrations. With a visit to the Secret Garden, we were introduced to the bees and their hidden haven.

Devils Lake Lavender Farm – Baraboo, Wisconsin (Update June 2022 this farm may no longer be in business)

Devils Lake Lavender Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin, bee on Lavandula angustifolia var. Melissa, different varieties of lavender, a pollinator garden.
Devils Lake Lavender Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Left: A happy bee on Lavandula angustifolia var. Melissa. Top right: Different varieties of lavender. Bottom right: A specially designed pollinator garden.

Rebecca Powell Hill is the owner of this unique farm which currently has 12,000 plants with over 30 different varieties of lavender. All of the lavender plants are originally from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. What makes this farm unique is that it is the first and only lavender and industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) farm in the U.S. at this time. In Wisconsin, industrial hemp is heavily regulated. Devils Lake Lavender Farm has both a grower license and a processor license to grow, harvest, and market industrial hemp.

The owner of the farm ventured into growing industrial hemp because of the health benefits, as well as the fact that it is very similar to lavender in terms of cultivation. Her goal was to create a wide array of products to support the health of their customers, some of which we were able to sample like a salve and a spray. In addition to growing lavender and industrial hemp, the farm has a small boutique, offers How-to-grow Lavender classes, a bistro downtown, and a luxury farmstay for herbal and healing retreats.

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 “Lady J.” and AJ Jones, along with their five children, run this authentic lavender farm where they practice “Aloha Sustained Agriculture” meaning that “the land is sustained by love.” They have over 23 lavender cultivars spread out over three hilly acres of land. In their Farm Cottage Boutique, they offer a variety of lavender infused organic botanical skin care products as well as crafts, plants, and culinary products.

Lady J. is a Certified Aromatherapist, a Certified Natural Skincare Designer, a distiller, and also an aspiring herbalist. She offers a variety of classes and Respas (beauty respites on the farm). Her favorite lavender cultivar is Wyckoff. She loves it because of the “strong, sturdy, and long stems, a deep purple color, sweet smell, and double bloom, what more could you ask for?” (K. Jones, personal communication, July 31, 2019)

A rustic barn stands on the property with a timber frame structure and a new roof. Our group started our tour there, where AJ had set up a majestic 30-liter alembic column still for our live distillation demonstration. 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. We eagerly set out to explore the rest of the farm with the anticipation of returning to experience the freshly distilled lavender hydrosol.

Lady J. gave us a demonstration in one of the organically grown lavender fields on how to harvest the lavender from the bush with a harvest knife, sometimes called a “sickle.” We also explored the rest of the property which included a Class 2 trout stream, and a wide variety of other plants and animals that live on the farm, including donkeys and bees.

When we returned to the barn, we were greeted with the sweet floral scent of lavender hydrosol as soon as we entered the space. AJ estimated that there were 30 plants that were harvested and used for this particular run of the still. This run would most likely produce a couple of gallons of hydrosol and about 1-oz. of essential oil. This helped to make the issue of sustainability tangible, and the take home gift of 1-oz. hydrosol so memorable and precious.

Evening Light Lavender Farm – Deer Park, Washington

I also had a chance to connect with Sandra Shuff, owner of Evening Light Lavender Farm. Sandra wears many hats; she 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. She is also a speaker and educator on the topics of distillation, hydrosols, and essential oils.

Located just outside of Spokane, this USDA Certified Organic farm boasts 21,000 plants with over 41 varieties of lavender. The lavender grown is considered “high altitude.” Anything grown above 2,500 feet in elevation is considered high altitude in the lavender world. In addition to lavender, the farm also grows Rose Geranium, lilacs, herbs, and other flowers (S. Shuff, personal communication, August 12, 2019).

Sandra has a “copper family” that includes four stills. She started off with her first still, 40 liters in size, that she named Felicity. Next came Sophia and Bernard, both 150 liters in size, and lastly a 20 liter still called Lily. She just got a new greenhouse and has plans for a new distillation facility with hopes of adding a 300 liter still. She distills over 48 different botanicals, including six different citruses, and sells them in her farm store and online. As a result of my conversation with Sandra, I am inspired to actually go and visit her farm in person some day!

LAVENDER 101

Lady J., 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) (ATTRA, 2006). 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

I learned a lot from visiting the lavender farms, talking to lavender growers, and supporting each of their unique ventures. It’s given me a greater insight into how lavender is farmed and how it ends up in the bottle. I have gained a deeper respect for all of these kind and passionate people who make lavender possible for us.

This was an important piece of my journey and work as an aromatherapist. It’s fueled my interest to visit high-altitude lavender farms in other countries, and to take part in more distillation workshops.

Whether you are an aromatherapist, herbalist, gardener, or essential oil user, I encourage you to take a closer look at the journey of lavender from farm to bottle. Visit the United States Lavender Growers Association to find lavender farms that are open to the public. If you’re able to visit any, please share your experience and photos with us. Happy touring!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

REFERENCES

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

ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). (2006). Lavender production, products, markets, and entertainment farms [PDF file]. https://www.wnc.edu/files/departments/ce/sci/attralavender.pdf

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