By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America
When Martine and Edgar Anderson retired five years ago, they moved to remote Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin and started their second careers as lavender farmers. On the north edge of the “lavender belt,” Washington Island is in growing zone 5B.
Martine was following a childhood inspiration; she grew up in the South of France where lavender farms were a part of life. The versatile, aromatic herb romanced her and never left.
The couple started strategically. Martine had been growing a few lavender plants that were doing very well in the growing zone. “Before we got to the scale of the business, we planted several varieties and realized that they could survive,” says Edgar. “But, before we started the farm, we did a lot of research with the University of Washington, talked to growers, talked to researchers and compared notes on soil samples, climate data.”
“The soils here are sandy,” he notes. “Good drainage is a must-have for lavender because they don’t want wet feet. Lavender is prone to fungal disease.”
The growing parameters on the Wisconsin island measured up. So Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm, Shop and Bistro is a 21-acre farm with 14,000 plants – 10 varieties — growing on five acres of land. Plans call to more than double cultivation in the next five years.
“We’ve been here four years and the plants are growing very well,” Edgar notes.
With supply, they needed demand. And, that hasn’t been a problem either. “The lavender industry in North America is small, compared to Europe and New Zealand. It took a big jump in the United States starting in the 1990s,” he says. And, he sees a need for U.S. growers to meet mounting demand.
The top lavender producing country is Bulgaria with 150 tons in 2015, according to Ukraine Today and other sources. That’s followed by France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Australia and the Mediterranean region.
Martine laments that U.S. lavender oil and lavender-scented products often come from China, where quality control is lax and purity may be questionable. “That’s not what you want to buy. We use pure oils, undiluted oils,” she says.
Though all lavenders are edible, Fragrant Isle grows different varieties for aromatic and culinary uses. Martine notes the strong aromatics (some camphor-like scents) are off putting for culinary uses.
Both variety and harvest differ for the two. “For aromatic uses like oil, you want to let them grow longer, so the buds swell and the compounds mature enough so you can extract quality oils,” she says “The weather plays a big role in when to harvest. If it gets hot early in summer, it happens sooner.”
“If you’re harvesting lavender buds, you have to watch when the flowers are only 30 percent open.”
In addition to the farm, Fragrant Isle has a café that serves lunch and has dinner hours on weekends. The 2,000-square-foot shop sells more than 150 products including body lotions, soap, body wash, linen spray, insect repellent, after shave and more. All use lavender from the farm.
“We are constantly looking for commercial ways to use lavender,” says Martine.
Diners at Le Petit Bistro experience culinary use they may want to repeat at home. “We use it in teas, in baking. We use it on fish, tenderloin, beef. We do sugar infused with lavender. We make jam,” says Martine. A recent menu item was Lemon Glazed Cake with Lavender Rhubarb Puree and Whipped Cream.
While Martine and Edgar are quick to share their knowledge, they’re making it more fun with a Lavender Festival on July 22, 23 and 24, 2016. Timed for the flowering season, they’ll offer lessons in lavender chocolate-making and lavender wand-making. Music is scheduled throughout the festival and visitors double their stress relief with massages in the field. More than 5,000 guests are expected to visit the three-day event. For details on getting to the island and more, check out their website.