News / People

Northwest lavender farm inspired by study-abroad trip to France

Sarah Richards grows six different varieties of lavender on nearly nine acres on Whidbey Island. The farm keeps Richards and four to five employees busy year-round, planting, cultivating and harvesting the lavender, then producing a bushel of different products made from the herb. Photo courtesy Sarah Richards

As a DU student in the 1970s, Sarah Richards definitely inhaled.

But it’s not what you think.

It was 1972, and 21-year-old Richards and her friends spilled out of the bus that had dropped them on the edge of the town of Grasse, in Provence, France, the center of the French perfume industry. Chatting excitedly, heading into another unexplored corner of Europe during her junior year abroad, Richards suddenly stopped dead in her tracks, transfixed.

“Instantly, I could smell the perfume in the air,” she recalls. “It was totally intoxicating. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Today, Richards, 60, is the queen of Lavender Wind Farm, a small, aromatic purple kingdom on an island off the coast of Washington. Her throne: a rusting red 1951 Farmall Cub tractor. Richards (BA ’73) grows six different varieties of lavender on nearly nine acres on Whidbey Island. The farm keeps Richards and four to five employees busy year-round, planting, cultivating and harvesting the lavender, then producing a bushel of different products made from the herb.

“In the small-farming community,” Richards says, “the buzzword is ‘value-added.’”

Farmers are finding they profit far more by selling products they make from their crops than by selling those crops wholesale or even unaltered directly to consumers. Richards and her staff create a wide range of goods from their lavender, from dried lavender and essential oils packaged for culinary and craft use and skin and body-care products.

Richards admits she didn’t learn a lick about distilling essential oils or soil science while at DU. She majored in art and French. She had come to Denver from Massachusetts “to ski,” she says, laughing. After graduating in 1973, she embarked on a few decades of work entirely unrelated to organic farming. She returned to school, earned a counseling degree and worked for 10 years as a mental health therapist. “One thing led to another,” she says, “and I found myself on a piece of property I didn’t quite know what to do with.”

Richards knew she wanted to farm the land, and she worked with the county extension agent to determine what types of crops would thrive. Surprisingly, the Pacific Northwest has a Mediterranean climate, with wet winters and dry summers. Her Whidbey Island acres are as amenable to lavender as the chalky cliffs of Provence. She recalled her time in France and her love for delightful-smelling things and recognized that her “creative and crafty kind of way of being in the world” would work well with a lavender crop.

She planted her first crop in 2000. She dove into researching, experimenting and traveling to conferences and classes to increase her harvest and to learn to manufacture the products she sells at her farm store and direct to consumers and wholesale clients online.

“There’s something about a general liberal arts degree that teaches people about creative thinking,” Richards says, reflecting on how her time at DU equipped her for life in the fields. Creative problem-solving skills have been critical for her business, whether solving the unique demand of lavender cultivation (the plants don’t do well with low-clearance, modern tractors) by hunting down a farming machine that trundled off the assembly line the same year she was born or mastering the demands of organic weed control.

This year, Richards will expand her business by moving manufacturing into a building in the town of Coupeville, where the commercial kitchen she’s building will help others in the surrounding farming community with their manufacturing and shipping.

She says she’s never worked harder in her life, but she loves it. Unlike working in the mental health field, working in actual fields reveals constant progress.

“You get to see the results of your work every day, in the land, in the plants growing,” she says. “Every day is a step forward, and you can see it. It is awesome.”

“It’s really, really hard work,” Richards continues. “But I never get tired of it. It’s amazing. Every year I look forward to the start of harvest, walking out of the fields with my arms full of fresh lavender. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world.”

Richards welcomes scores of visitors to Lavender Wind, where they can walk along the rows of purple and shop at the store, where employees dish out scoops of lavender ice cream under a canopy of purple plants that hang from the ceiling to dry. Sometimes, especially when they’re distilling the lavender oil, the aroma stops people dead in their tracks.

“They just stop,” Richards says, “and inhale.”

Tags:

7 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*