Inside Santa Ynez Valley Magazine; In Country section; Autumn, 2000
LAVENDER FIELDS FOREVER
by Shirley Dettmann
Picture lavender fields like sunlit gems scattered over the countryside as adornment for the pristine rows of the vineyards. It is a glorious vision for the Santa Ynez Valley in the minds of Kim Brown, who is farming the acreage behind her home with the profuse blue blossoms.
More than a landscape design, they are nurturing a new industry for the area. In summer, when the plants are heavy with their circle of blue flower spikes, they harvest their "crops" and distill the blooms to produce the scented products that the world usually associates with the Provence region of France.
In this era of natural products and aromatherapy, this former environmental consultant thought the timing was perfect to launch the Santa Ynez Lavender Company. Its array of products can be found online at www.santaynezlavender.com. Shoppers can choose from lavender body mist, hair spray, soap, perfume, linen waters, and lavender and rose geranium facial spray.
"Lavender has so many uses beyond fragrances," Brown enthusiastically expounds. "You'll find it in foods from sorbets to meat rubs and vinaigrettes. We market the stems as grilling sticks to add flavor to a barbecue." Herbalists ascribe soothing attributes to it. The eye pillows they've made for Fess Parker's spa could fit that role.
This is a hands-on business for Brown and her extended family. They bring diverse talents and hard labor to the complexities of planting, harvesting, distilling, drying, packaging and marketing.
The whole process is magical to daughter Alexandra, 8, a third-grader [when it all started], who associates it with mixing potions a la Harry Potter. What a great theme for her birthday party with broomstick races and essence of lavender!
Brothers Derek and Morgan fought off the weeds until tiny seedlings were established. They all worked together to lay water lines. Besides this physical labor, jobs include farm manager, marketing, labeling, designing a Web page and distilling.
[Other] very special farmhands were Ballard sixth-graders, who put their time and energy up for bids in a school auction. To fulfill their commitment of two hours apiece, the students measured and dug holes 36 inches apart, an arduous lesson in farming under a bright sun.
Brown assumes the role of farm as well, even though she was born and bred in Los Angeles. Her agricultural roots go back to Illinois grandparents, and her degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, is in geology. Although their first half-acre was planted with purchased seedlings, she now propagates her own in the greenhouse out back.
This year they not only added another acre to their own lavender field, but also sold 5000 plants to Mila Hart for her garden in Happy Canyon. Brown shares her expertise with other enthusiasts like Rona Barrett. She is talking with Steve Jacobsen about the possibilities of lavender for his farming ventures.
Propagation is a must for commercial lavenders since they are hybrids and seeds cannot be used. Brown's plants are mostly a variety called Grosso, dominant in the French oil market because of its profusion of flowers and high yields of oil.
"They take three or four years to mature and last 15 to 20 years with proper care, producing 500-600 stems a year," she explained. "Our Mediterranean-like climate is ideal for their development." It was these characteristics that led Brown to choose lavender as a home industry. Once established, there should be no need to plant the fields annually.
Resistance to pests is another virtue. Even gophers and deer limit their nibbling to the young seedlings, for mature plants have a camphor element that does not make for gourmet dining in the animal kingdom. Since they do not use any pesticides, Santa Ynez Lavender Company is registered as an organic grower with the Santa Barbara Agricultural Commission, a positive virtue for their health-store presence.
Brown has also planted the more elite angustifolia variety. Called "true lavender" it produces oils used in the finest perfumes but is less profuse and not as beautiful. Eventually she hopes to develop a landscape garden of all kinds of lavender varieties, but that is for another year.
PAGE 1 CAPTION: It's the lavender variety known as Grosso in her fields. Kim Brown farms, harvests and distills lavender oil.
PAGE 2 CAPTIONS: (Above, from left) Jill Blakemore, Ben Forsyth and Donna Blakemore gather lavender for trimmer Anne Branch. (Left) Neat rows of harvested Grosso lavender. (Bottom) The Brown/Baker family with a truckload of freshly gathered lavender, ready for the distiller.
PAGE 3 CAPTION 1: (Above) Alexandra and her mother Kim mix, bottle and label a wide variety of cosmetic products under the family Santa Ynez Lavender Company label, all created from a base of home-grown lavender oil.
PAGE 3 CAPTION 2: Robert Baker distills one ounce of oil per pound of lavender blooms.