Swanson hangs in there with lavender
APPOMATTOX, Va. — Bonnie Swanson of Evergreen Lavender Farm, markets her lavender products through pick-your-own by customers and development of her own products.
She says customers visiting the farm pick the lavender mostly for decoration, keeping it for looks and fragrance, or they dry it then take it off the stem and form their own sachets. She either hands them scissors for cutting, or she encourages them to bring their own, especially last year during the pandemic. In addition, they are handed a rubber band and a cardboard tube that is used as a measuring device. Once it is full of lavender, the customer knows they have a bunch. Bonnie says on one plant of L. x-intermedia Phenomenal, she can harvest about 30 to 38 bunches or more, depending on how large the plant is.
While Evergreen Lavender Farm allows customers to pick their own lavender bunches, Swanson still has some left over to harvest herself for drying bouquets.
“I wait until just the bottom two are flowering,” she says, “and then I cut because the buds will stay on the stems longer. Then, I’ll just let it go a little bit longer, and the next bunch that we dry is for sachets, taking it off the stem or for the [lavender] still [to produce essential oil and hydrosol].”
With those, she either hangs up and dries them in her farm barn or she distills it as fresh or dried. If the weather is hot and humid, it takes less than a week to dry the lavender. If it rains a lot, the drying process takes longer. Once complete, she stores the dried lavender stems in feed bags or in tubs, depending on her use for it, until she is ready to clean and separate the plant.
Swanson takes it off the stem and extracts the buds using a tabletop seed-cleaning machine, which sports different size holes in the screens. The cleaner shakes the lavender then the top part or big sticks of the plant go out to one side. That falls through to the second screen which shakes out all the chaff. The clean lavender shakes down to the bottom into a container. The result is about two to three pounds of lavender buds.
After this process, Swanson sells the lavender by the pound or half pound. “Brides buy it usually to throw at their weddings to give the guests,” she says.
The remaining dried lavender she uses in a still. She steams it with the stems attached to remove essential oil and lavender distilled water, which still has the lavender fragrance. She puts that into a 40-liter container. “For one distillation, I can get a half gallon or so of hydrosol, and then maybe 15 milliliters of oil.
“I would say I have about eight feed bags full of lavender,” Swanson adds, “and then the big tubs, three of those for bouquets then about eight feed bags for processing for sachets or oil.”
To make her products, she sometimes buys and uses oils from Washington or Oregon because she may not have enough lavender from her fields to produce them. “There’s no way I can produce enough oil to add to the product,” she says.
She also markets her products on the farm in a gift shop housed in an old caboose.
Before COVID hit in 2020, Swanson had booked a few weddings that were held in the lavender fields mostly. Eventually last year, she and Ken had a chapel erected for events such as weddings and receptions. In 2020, she booked only two weddings in the chapel due to the pandemic. One was in May and the other in July.
She hopes to book more in 2021. For May and June alone, she already has eight weddings booked.
Looking back to when she started in 2010, Swanson says she might would have done at least one thing differently — buy property that is better suited for lavender growth and includes lots of ample water drainage. “But you know, I wasn’t thinking that at the time,” she says. “That’s why I’m kind of limited to where I can really expand.”
What will the future hold for Evergreen Lavender Farm? Will Swanson expand or rest on her laurels? “I think for right now, it’s where I want to be,” she says. “I may do a couple of little sections to plant more lavender, but right now it’s kind of focused on the chapel and elopement-type weddings, smaller things. I do have like several different packages for events, weddings or receptions. I may just not offer receptions all together and just do weddings. The bride and groom can go to a different venue for their reception.”
One thing she will hold again this year that wasn’t on the schedule last season is a lavender festival. In years past, this event has drawn in about 2,000 visitors and vendors such as food trucks, artisans, crafters and musicians. Bonnie will presale tickets for the event to be held on June 19.
Also, she already held an herb fair that wasn’t held last year. This year marked the fourth or fifth one. At the fair, local farmers were selling and talking about their crops and experiences on the farm. Speakers presented workshops to discuss herbs, conservation and native plants, as well as good pollinators.
Her events this year might also involve a small group of product tastings in the summer. Additionally, when the lavender blooms in June and into July, she may conduct crafting workshops centered around lavender.
To earn some extra income, the Swansons also operate an Airbnb that features a cottage on their farm.
For two to three years before the pandemic, Bonnie and her husbandKen held regular music concerts and open mic nights at a small pavilion behind their home.
“That slowly may be coming back,” Bonnie says. “Musicians still aren’t really traveling yet that far anyway.”
The music rings true to Ken’s ears. “I’d like the music aspect to be a little more in depth,” he says. “I don’t want to give that up. I’d like to see that flourish.
“We’ve come to learn after all these years there’s so many [musicians] that are just scraping by to do their craft,” he continues. “They have to travel to do it a long distance. Sometimes the talent just blows you away. It’s just amazing the people that are out there.”
Ken, who is a recently retired nurse practitioner, would like to see the music return, for good reason. Both he and Bonnie are musicians and play in their own band. Bonnie plays the accordion washboard, and Ken sings and plays various instruments such as guitar and harmonica. Their five-member group are known as the Living Room Band.
“We have a group of people that have been following us for a long time, 15 years anyway, which is kind of like family,” Ken says.