It's hard to say what catches the attention of a visitor first: the collective hum of hundreds of buzzing bees nestled in the stalks of 600 blooming lavender plants; or, the deep, vivid purple-hued plants themselves, gorgeously stretched out the length of an orchard, with cherry and peach trees along either side of the neat rows, and the West Elk Mountains as a backdrop. Equally as tantalizing to the senses is the earthy fragrance: the sunshine and soil and fresh, clean air, all of which enhances the warm, rich scent of fresh lavender. Standing in the middle of Ed and Laurie Conner's lavender field on a warm summer day can leave one's senses positively reeling.
Last weekend, there were quite a few visitors in sensory bliss, some with their own cuttings of lavender, some with the taste of lavender-infused lemonade or lavender sugar cookies still on their tongues. The experience was all part of the farm tour offered by the Conners as part of the Colorado Lavender Festival, organized by the Lavender Association of Western Colorado. This was the second year the Conners were part of the self-guided farm tours; a few years ago, their farm on Rogers Mesa was one of the featured farms during a bus tour.
Lavender has been used for centuries, widely used in ancient times for its medicinal uses and found everywhere from the Canary Islands, Europe, eastern Africa, the Mediterranean and parts of Asia and India. In more recent times, lavender has steadily gained in popularity and awareness in the U.S., with more and more farms popping up around the country, driven in part by the demand for the plant in essential oil form, bath and beauty products, culinary uses, landscaping additions and other uses.
Ed and Laurie have been raising lavender since 2011. In 1999, Ed purchased the 25-acre farm on Rogers Mesa from an uncle, and began farming apples, peaches, cherries, apricots and plums. He and Laurie met in 2008, when, at the Montrose Farmer's Market, Ed threw Laurie an apple, and she caught it. Neither of them knew at the time that it was a custom in ancient Greece that if a gentleman threw an apple at a lady, it was considered a marriage proposal. If the lady caught the apple, it was an acceptance. "I caught it, and now we have a five-year-old and an orchard," Laurie said.
While still dating they attended a horticulture tour together in Palisade, where they visited Sage Creations, which sold lavender starts. Ed proclaimed them a "neat" plant and suggested they should plant a couple.
"I think he was still trying to impress me then, so I said sure, we'll put some in," Laurie said. "So we put in two rows, and now we have 600 plants. That's the romantic side of farming!"
The bad part is, two years into the operation, while Laurie was making some of her oils, they discovered that Ed was allergic to the plant, and was especially sensitive to the super-concentrated oils. So now he works the orchard and she works the lavendar.
They started with 100 plants that first year, and the next year added more plants and three more varieties. They now grow seven varieties of their micro-crop artisan lavender. They grow a variety called Grosso, from which Laurie produces her own essential oil and hydrosol (aromatic waters that are created during steam distillation of essential oils). They also grow Melissa, which has a white flower, and Folgate, both of which are culinary lavender. The Purple Bouquet variety is a dark purple that pops with color. It is used most often in crafting. They also grow French Fields, Malleitte and Edelwiess (another white flower), which are used more for bath and body products.
The scientific name of lavender is Lavandula Angustifolia, and is also known as true lavender or English lavender. This is the lavender that has the rich, earthy scent. Lavandula x Intermedia is considered to have a sweeter scent. It is a hybrid plant developed in 1900 by crossing true lavender with spike lavender or aspic. The result is a larger plant with blue or gray flowers. It has similar qualities to that of true lavender but since it has a sharper smell, it is especially useful for treating muscular aches and pains, as well as for circulatory and respiratory problems.
At the farm tour last weekend, Laurie spent hours in her lavender patch educating visitors from all over the state (and a few out-of-staters who trekked here for the lavender festival) about the farming, harvesting and production of lavender. The plant is pretty hardy and a tough plant, she explained. She does nothing special for her plants as far as fancy soil additives or seasonal tricks to ensure the plant blooms. When she was asked what kind of soil she used for her plants, she replied, very matter-of-factly, "Just what's here. Colorado clay. And it likes it; it likes the dry soil." She flood irrigates just once every two weeks. And while the plant is susceptible to deer when the plant is very young -- less than six inches tall -- while the plants are growing, the deer, and other critters, leave them alone. She doesn't even need to cover the plants in the winter. The geography and climate of Delta County is perfect for this crop. "We grow lavender really well here," she said. Despite that, there are just a handful of commercial lavender operations in Delta County, with the majority of the Western Slope's production coming from Palisade and Grand Junction.
The growing season is very short. The plants first bloomed in early May, and by this time next week, Laurie's field will be completely harvested. That's actually a longer season than normal; she left the plants in bloom for the farm tours. Normally she would have harvested all the plants in early July. The timing of the harvest is important because plants that are in flower too long result in a less intense essential oil.
From her harvest, Laurie creates a tempting array of products. She makes the oil and the hydrosol, sprays, lip butters, sachets and bath soak bags, and foot care products.
She also crafts a line of culinary products such as a lavender tea and a lavender hot chocolate mix. She sells food-grade lavender buds for use in recipes, as well as a blended lavender sugar, which can also be used in recipes, as in the delicate, buttery sugar cookies Laurie makes. Using the fruit from her orchards, she makes lavender-infused jams, and also crafts a lavender-infused honey. One of the tastiest products she makes is a line of handmade chocolates featuring her lavender. Most of her food items are low-sugar, allowing the taste of the lavender to shine.
Laurie and Ed sell their products at their farm store, at the Pack Shack in Hotchkiss and at the Gunnison, Basalt and Montrose farmer's markets. You can also purchase online at www.ConnerOrchards.com.
Thanks to the efforts of state Rep. Millie Hamner, House District 61, Colorado State University plans to re-open the Rogers Mesa research site.
The facility was taken out of operation in 2011, due to budget cuts throughout the CSU system.