Versatile plant spawns a village of cottage industries.
Story by Lisa Allen + Photography by Kim Smith Photo
If you can think of only a couple of uses of lavender, such as soap or lavender oil, you just aren’t trying.
Scott Sonoc and his wife Marsha Williams haven’t come close to running out of uses for lavender. The product catalog for their stores on Bay Street in Beaufort and on Washington Island in Wisconsin is nearing 200 items: chocolates, salt, neck wraps, caramel corn, salve, jewelry, coffee, syrup and pest control.
“Our best product suggestions come from our customers,” Williams said.
In Beaufort, a local coffee roaster is adding “lavender syrup” to make lavender lattes and will be roasting beans with lavender oil. A jeweler is using lavender in her designs. A seamstress is making neck wraps and eye pillows with lavender inside for constant comfort. Hives are getting established around the fields to produce local lavender honey.
“Our benchmark is to create work that can sustain a family of four,” Sonoc said. They created five such revenue streams in Wisconsin and are looking for local artisans here who can develop new products from lavender. “Now we’re looking for candle and soap makers.”
“As people’s interest in natural products grew, interest in lavender has grown,” Williams said.
“Interest is flowering,” Sonoc quipped.
Finding as many uses as possible for the labor-intensive, rosemary-and-mint relative is what makes sustainable lavender farming profitable, the couple said. They don’t use any pesticides in growing their lavender crops. They add organic nutrients derived from seaweed.
“I can’t tell you how many people come into our stores and say ‘I want something natural. I don’t want anything from China. I want something handmade.’ People are willing to pay for it,” Williams said.
Even they’ve been surprised by how many products can be produced from lavender. “It’s a great raw material. And it has a universal scent. So many people say it’s their favorite scent, both men and women,” Williams said.
There are two ways the lavender plant is processed. They are harvested just as they produce buds, dried and used; or they are harvested for their oil, which is at its peak when the plant is in full flower.
Most products use the dried buds, but either way, each plant is sowed by hand, pruned by hand and harvested, three years later, by hand. For the former, harvesting has to happen in a hurry while the plant is in bud, about a 10-day window, Sonoc said. For oils, they wait for the plant to fully flower.
For bud harvesting, farmhands use a hand sickle to cut a small bundle, bind it and lay it aside. Each plant can produce 10 bundles. Then, the bundles are picked up by hand and carried into the barn. Each bundle is strung up on paper clips, bundle by bundle, (yes, by hand), and hang for several weeks to dry. Then, the process is repeated in reverse: Each bundle is taken down and either preserved, shredded or powdered.
Extracting oil is another elaborate process, also beginning with a sickle. The bundles, which don’t have to be dried, are placed in a stainless steel still, much like those used to produce vodka or gin. A method using steam and condensation separates the oil from the plants. The oil goes into insect repellent and essential oils; the water from the still is used for sprays and scents; and the dregs of leftover oil is dried and mixed with mulch to keep deer from gardens. (Deer don’t like lavender.)
But harvesting hasn’t happened here yet.
The first Lowcountry lavender crop was just planted in November.
“It took us a while to find land with good breezes to keep the plants dry,” Sonoc said. The couple bought a farm on Warsaw Island outside of Beaufort where they planted 5,000 plants representing 12 varieties of lavender to test which strain will thrive in the Lowcountry.
They grow English lavender strains in Wisconsin and are experimenting with Portuguese, Spanish and French varieties here. Sonoc and Williams have few places to turn for expert advice; no one else has tried to grow the plant in this area. Even the U.S. Lavender Growers Association is less than 10 years old and most other growers are in the Pacific Northwest. Now, with nearly 17,000 plants in two states, the couple is among the country’s largest lavender growers.
Lavender farming is a far cry from the Chicago couple’s day jobs. Sonoc is an architect with designs around the world and Williams was in finance and now sits on corporate boards. Now, their goal is to use lavender as a foundation for sustainable, local jobs in two rural areas, one on an island in Lake Michigan with a population of 600 and now the Sea Islands in South Carolina. They bought a second home in Beaufort in 2009 and moved here full time in 2015.
“I never thought I’d own a sickle, much less know how to use it,” Williams said.
Despite lavender’s labor intensity, the couple is able to clear a profit because they own both the means of production — the farms — and the retail outlets — the stores. “We cut out the middle man,” Williams said.
The synergy of grower and artisan is part of the appeal, Williams said. They enjoy being outside with the plants and fostering local entrepreneurs eager to create Earth-friendly businesses.
“Even the ancient Romans and Egyptians used lavender,” Sonoc said.
And it’s likely the farm practices they used were similar to today. By hand.