Carol Schott became interested in essential oils several years ago when she began making goat's milk soap. She wanted to know more about the essential oils used to make it smell so wonderful.
And she was especially fond of one particular oil: lavender.
That curiosity has turned into a cash crop for Carol and husband James. They purchased a 37-acre farmstead on Lamborn Mesa in 2002, originally as a potential site for Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, a Boulder-based company which makes artisinal cheeses and which James had founded in the early 1990s. Carol knew that lavender grows well in Colorado, and they made it a goal to grow the pungent and popular-scented perennial commercially.
They thought they were way ahead of the game, said James. "We hadn't been here two months and we saw an ad in the paper for a meeting of the Lavender Association of Western Colorado." About 50 showed up, and LAWC was born.
The fact that they weren't the first to discover that lavender is perfectly suited to the arid and seasonal climate and alkaline soils of western Colorado turned out to be a good thing. The Schotts became charter members of LAWC in 2009. "The association is very supportive of all the growers," said Carol. "Everybody shares information, we share equipment."
Board president and master gardener Kathy Kimbrough said she has long loved lavender and about four years ago had approached Curtis Swift of the Colorado State University Tri River Extension on the feasibility of growing it on a large scale. Swift sent Kimbrough to the 2008 lavender conference in Sequim (rhymes with "swim"), Washington, "The Lavender Capital of North America," to learn more. She discovered that most states already grow lavender commercially, and while many areas experience problems, they are mostly related to high humidity — which arid western Colorado doesn't have.
Two English gentlemen at the conference shared that plants grown at high altitudes produce the best oils. When Kimbrough asked what they thought of as "high altitude," their response was 1,800 feet.
"I literally ran home with the news," said Kimbrough. Today the association has 50 members from Mack to Palisade, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Montrose, Olathe, Austin, Crawford. And interest continues to grow, said Kimbrough. The Schotts are one of two lavender farmers in Paonia. Lyle and Judy Millsap, owners of Lamborn Bed and Breakfast and Coal Mountain Vineyard, started La Petite Lavender Farm in
Kimbrough envisioned people growing the crop on the side, but to her surprise, several members grow lavender exclusively or as their main crop. She estimates that members are growing between 30,000-40,000 plants this year, and the numbers continue to grow.
"People really fell in love with lavender and that's really exciting to see," she said.
The Schotts started out small, with just a few plants, but had a setback when they were inadvertently sold plants not well suited to the cold winters. They replaced the plants that froze, and now grow about 800 cold-hardy
lavender plants, with plans to add more in the coming years. They grow several varieties, each with its own distinct scent and best uses. Their plants are surrounded by pasture and a thicket of shrubs that provide bird habitat. The Schotts also raise milk goats, Scottish Highland cows and chickens. They grow a small garden and tend to numerous edible perennials.
While lavender is a low-water-use, or Xeriscape plant, it has specific water needs. The Schotts elected to install a sprinkler system. While many growers use drip lines, this system works well for them, said James. Unlike with drip, water is broadcast more evenly over the entire root system, which extends beyond the foliage, and helps improve soil quality. And clogs that can develop in drip systems may go undetected until plants wither and die. They like to be able to see exactly what is being watered.
The lavender is at its peak now and ready for harvest, although it's a good three to four weeks ahead of last year, said Carol. She walks past rows and rows of budding shrubs, ranging from a deep purple to light pink, and describes their qualities.
Some, like Hidcote and Royal Velvet, are true lavenders, or Lavendula Angustafolia, often called "English Lavender." In terms of essential oil they make a high-quality therapeutic oil. Others, the x-intermedia, such as Grosso, are not as cold-hardy. They are larger plants and produce more oil, but have a stronger scent and are commonly used in soaps and lotions.
L. angustafolia cultivars such as Royal Velvet and Miss Katherine, a pink lavender, make nice bouquets. Like many flowers, lavender, — a member of the mint family — has a myriad of culinary uses. While all English varieties have culinary qualities, the Fulgate and Buena Vista, both grown by the Schotts, are preferred by some. They go well with meats such as pork and lamb, said Carol, who used lavender in last year's Thanksgiving dressing, which was delicious. Culinary lavender is also used in desserts, such as coffee cake.
LAWC member Lida Lafferty of Grand Junction has put together a cook book, "Spike it with Lavender," from recipes submitted by members. The book is updated as members submit new recipes.
The association hosted the second annual lavender festival July 6-8, at Palisade. The first festival exceeded the association's expectations, said Kimbrough.
The final day was reserved for farm tours. People came from as far away as Aspen, Grand Junction and the Front Range to tour the Schotts' farmstead. They even welcomed a family from Chicago.
There is growing interest in lavender's healing qualities. Throughout history, lavender has been used to treat numerous maladies including insomnia, anxiety and digestive problems. Lavender is a natural anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal and is used as an antibiotic and detoxifier and in some hospitals as an antiseptic. Midwives use it during labor and delivery to calm the mother. The essential oils are especially valuable.
James and Carol distill their own oils, which are in high demand by massage and aroma therapists and makers of health and beauty aids such as soaps, salves and lotions.
"A lot of people are expressing an interest in purchasing the oil when it's ready," said Carol. The market is definitely there.
They also sell cut lavender for bouquets and the buds for sachets, and there is a new market emerging. "People are interested in the soothing qualities of the hydrosol," the water left over from distilling that contains fully-emulsified plant oils, said Carol. Like the oils, hydrosol's medicinal and restorative properties have many uses. It has a cooling effect when sprayed on the skin, and is also a great window cleaner.
While lavender's history dates back more than 2,500 years, its history in the U.S. is brief. Sequim and the surrounding area has only been producing about 15 years (about the life of a lavender plant). There is still a lot to learn about the plant, and several studies are being conducted at the CSU Orchard Mesa test gardens and at member farms. According to Curtis Swift, tests will help to determine the differences in bud yields among certain varieties, the effectiveness of different ground materials in preventing winter injury, and to determine if the crop can grow well between rows of grape vines, which require similar conditions.
Carol recently helped LAWC and Extension write a grant to compare the oils of different cultivars to see which ones grow best in this area, and which ones produce the highest quality therapeutic oils.
Kimbrough is confident that tests will determine that Colorado can produce the best essential oils in the world. "We have every way to be successful," she said.
For more information on the Lavender Association of Western Colorado, visit
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