Sequim Lavender Farms
Lavender Harvest  
Lavender News

The News Tribune - Tacoma, Wash.
July 17, 2004
Copyright The McClatchy Company Jul 17, 2004

SEQUIM - Development pains the lavender farmers of Sequim.

Drive around the city and the Dungeness Valley, and it's easy to see why. Wide fields populated only by dilapidated barns alternate with neat, cookie-cutter subdivisions of matching houses painted complementary pastel hues.

Nowhere is the contrast more clear than at Cedarbrook Herb Farm, a farm on Sequim's outskirts that was in rural territory when Toni Anderson's mother opened it in 1967. Anderson has watched the surrounding farmers sell their property to developers. Now her neighbors are rows of seemingly identical houses in a rainbow of colors.

In 1996, she decided to do something about the dwindling farmland. She and a pair of friends held a meeting at her farm to encourage others to grow lavender - a crop that succeeds singularly well in Sequim's sunny farmland.

A theme was born. In eight years, Sequim has become a lavender center.

More than 30,000 people are expected to visit the Lavender Festival this weekend, shopping from 140 vendors at a street fair and visiting eight working lavender farms. Farm owners expect they'll have up to 500 cars at a time in their parking lots.

And the farms thrive. Eight will be open to the public this weekend at the Lavender Festival and most will continue to be open through the end of August. And those are only the farms that choose to open their doors. More fields of deep-purple, almost black lavender cover the Dungeness Valley landscape, filling the air with lavender's spicy-sweet scent.

Mary Borland of Olympic Lavender Farm was at that first meeting back in 1996.

"We wanted to save the farmlands," she said.

Borland's parents had a summer place in Sequim when she was a child, and she moved to the city to teach in 1983. She was horrified to see the cow pastures of her youth disappear under subdivisions. So when she saw a note in the local paper about growing lavender, she went to the meeting.

"I came home and said, 'Sweetie, we're going to start growing lavender,'" she said. She and her husband, Steve, bought a 5-acre field and planted a half-acre of lavender and later another half- acre.

On a recent weekday, getting ready for the Lavender Festival, Steve walked through the chest-high rows of deep-purple Grosso lavender, pulling weeds. He also minded a small still that was slowly distilling lavender oil drop by drop and supervised three youths from Mary Borland's school, who were helping hang bundles of lavender to dry.

The Borlands thought the farm would be a small summer job, but managing the field and creating lavender-themed products has become a year-round business. Though Borland has one of the smallest farms on the tour, she has a thriving gift shop, Internet business and a stand in Sequim's Saturday farmers market.

At the other end of the lavender spectrum is Marie Barnett, a 30- year-old mother of two who co-manages Sequim Valley Lavender for an investor. She's the administrative partner, and Victor Gonzales the grower, for a 750-acre farm with 25 acres of lavender. Barnett said she thinks it's the largest lavender farm in the Pacific Northwest.

They sell most of their lavender wholesale, sending plants to major nurseries and lavender potpourri to retailers and to other lavender growers. Gonzales and his employees - mostly family members - clean the lavender by hand, a painstaking process of shaking the blooms through a series of wire screens.

That's a labor Cathy and Leeon Angel weren't interested in. Five years ago they bought an 80-year-old dairy farm near Sequim, intending to grow lavender as a part-time retirement business. They had raised llamas in Issaquah for 16 years, so they had had a taste of farming, though Cathy was an engineering project manager and Leeon an accountant.

The Angels grow 3 acres of lavender on the 25-acre Angel Farm, "and boy does it produce," Cathy said. "It's grown into a much larger venture than we intended."

The Angels ship lavender to wholesalers year-round and also are part owners of Moose Dreams Lavender at Seattle's Pike Place Market. They dry more than a dozen varieties of lavender in their enormous dairy barn, the bundles spiraling around chains hanging from the ceiling.

But Cathy and Leeon weren't interested in the labor of shaking lavender seeds off the stalk or cleaning them with wire screens. Leeon devised a machine with rotating chimney brushes for cleaning the seeds off the stalks.

Then he found a seed-cleaning machine in Oregon and brought it home to Angel Farm. It cleans the lavender quickly and efficiently, with none of that annoying manual labor involved.

"It was awful," Cathy said of the labor. "So this is just great."

Cathy is a cheerful, petite woman who, like many of the farmers, likes to wear purple.

Pam Nicholson, who owns Jardin du Soleil, is another former businesswoman who took up growing lavender as a second career. She was a project manager for Bank of America, her husband a hydrogeologist, when they decided to buy a historic farm near Sequim five years ago.

They encourage visitors to pick their own bunches of lavender for a fee, as do all the farms on the tour. And they sell dozens of their own lavender-themed products in their gift shop, from soaps to cookies to linen water, a byproduct of oil distilling.

The Nicholsons came from dry Las Vegas, where lavender thrived.

"We have a unique climate" in Sequim, Pam Nicholson said. "It's the rain shadow (caused by the Olympic Mountains). We don't get much rain, and we get lots of sun."

Jardin du Soleil is one of the most-photographed farms on the tour, its deep purple, almost black rows undulating over low hillsides. She's resisted requests to host weddings at the farm: "We don't want to get into that."

She and her husband left Las Vegas to avoid development, and like the other farmers, they've been alarmed at the changes in Sequim. ("It's disgusting," Mary Borland said of a Wal-Mart under construction at one end of town.)

But Nicholson is quietly proud to have preserved an 1880s farmhouse and 20 acres of land, including the site of an old dairy barn. Her neighbors bought another 88 acres of the historic farmland and dedicated it to open space.

"The whole farm will be preserved," she said, "not a housing development."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658
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