The HVADC Cultivator
FFBA Participant David & Diane Allen of Lavenlair Farm
David and Diane Allen of Lavenlair Farm in Washington County are participants in HVADC’s Farm & Food Business Accelerator Program (FFBA). Lavenlair Farm was founded in 2013, when the Allen’s moved up to Washington County from northern New Jersey. Although neither David nor Diane have a background in farming, it was their desire to ‘make a living while making a life’ that drew them to start a lavender farm. Told by locals “lavender doesn’t grow here”, they have happily proven that it does indeed grow and thrive when given the proper attention and care.
All of the work on the farm is done by hand, they do not use tractors, and between planting, weeding, pruning and harvesting, lavender is a very labor intensive crop. The whole farm is 80 acres and 3 acres are planted in lavender. In 2016, they ended up leaving a third of the crop in the field because they just did not have the time to harvest all of it. This resulted in a very sweet ending though, as the Allens have six hives on the farm, and the bees took full advantage of the pollen from the remaining lavender, which produced the most delicious lavender honey. The farm uses geothermal heating, photovoltaic electricity, and solar heated hot water.
The Allens have learned by doing, and there have been many challenges, but also rewards, and they have learned that lavender is something that people get excited about. Lavender is a tender perennial in the Adirondacks, and it takes some time for the plants to get established. The Allens propagate their lavender, that is, they take a sprig, an actual branch stem, peel it off and stick it in the ground to get a new plant.
Lavenlair grows 18 different hardy varieties of lavender, all of them varieties that can survive cold temperatures. Lavender can survive at -15 degrees Fahrenheit, but in the Adirondacks, it can get as cold as -20 degrees, so they use farm blankets, which buys them 10 degrees of cold protection. The first season at Lavenlair they went in to the winter with beautiful plants, which they protected from freezing with farm blankets, as advised. However, 3 feet of wet heavy snow on top of the blankets crushed and killed the plants. They have since learned that the blankets have to be supported in order to protect the plants.
The annual rain fall in the Adirondack region puts Lavenlair on the outer limits of how much precipitation the plants can handle. Lavender prefers 15-44 inches rain annually, however at Lavenlair they typically get 42 inches. Interestingly, the poorer the soil the better it is to grow lavender. As lavender is such a high maintenance crop, they do expect to lose 10% of the crop every year. They do their best to farm in harmony with nature, but Mother Nature sometimes has other ideas, as in 2016, when many of the plants were eaten by deer.
It takes a few years before the lavender yields a quantity of buds large enough to harvest for oil. Due to some setbacks while learning how to grow the lavender, 2016 was the first year they had enough buds to make their own essential oils. They use a 15 gallon copper still for distillation of the lavender which produces oil that is completely pure and chemical free. They also grow and distill organic peppermint and spearmint, as 2 of the 3 top selling essential oils are lavender and mint.
Among the 18 varieties grown at Lavenlair, Diane is partial to the more unusual varieties- white lavender, pink lavender, because they are unexpected. There is one variety that dries navy blue. Customers don’t show a preference, but Diane feels it is because they are not aware that there are so many varieties and colors. Although all lavender is technically edible, there are certain varieties that tastier than others. Lavenlair grows a culinary variety of English lavender that is best for cooking.
In early 2017, Lavenlair was awarded “Best of Show” for Lavender Crafts at the United States Lavender Growers’ Association conference. These crafts are available for purchase on their website, along with essential oils, lotions, soaps and lavender bunches.
The Allens have found FFBA to be an incredibly valuable experience. Going in to their 4th season of farming, they feel quite knowledgeable agriculturally, but the business and commerce aspects are new to them. The FFBA has been very helpful as it covers all aspects of running a farm business. The Allens also found FFBA to be a great source of networking with fellow classmates, they have found it comforting to see other people in farm and food businesses share similar experiences and nice to have a peer group that is supportive. Professional relationships have also come out of networking with fellow FFBA participants, Lavenlair is hoping to work with 2 other participants to create lavender jam and lavender yogurt. Another important and valuable component of FFBA is the introduction to potential investors and funders, the opportunity to pitch ideas to these investors, and the potential access to capital.
The FFBA has been an incredibly valuable experience. We have figured out the farming aspect, but the business side of things is new to us. FFBA covers all aspects of business, how to manage employees, citizenship, payroll, workers compensation, taxes, marketing, social media, networking. I can’t say enough good things about the program. – Diane Allen, Lavenlair Farm
Diane envisions Lavenlair becoming an agritourism destination, a place that will be on everyone’s must-see list when visiting the Lake George area and hopes to develop an annual lavender festival during the second week of July. The Allens intend to renovate a one room schoolhouse on the property to be the farm store, as well as a place to hold community workshops. The Allens want Lavenlair to be an engine of prosperity in the region for people of all ages. They would also like to show young people that it is possible to make a living farming, as long as you think outside of the box. They want to work with young people and seniors in the community. Currently just a seasonal employer – they hope to offer year-round employment at the farm store and farmers markets. The farm is also available for weddings and other events.
The Allens feel very fortunate to be on the land, and consider themselves to be stewards of the land rather than owners. They chose a crop that could be farmed organically so as not to expose themselves, or the planet, to any pesticides, and to tread as lightly as possible on the earth. The Allens strive to make Lavenlair as holistic as can be, a place where people can visit, relax, and experience the peace and calm of life on a lavender farm.
If you, or someone that you know, would like to be a participant in the next FFBA program, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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