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    Herbal Harvest

    Lavender farm produces a fragrant crop

    By Jodi Torpey

    Photography by John Pendleton

    Mike Neustrom stands on the windswept rolling hills of north-central Kansas watching his dog, Augie, dart back and forth between long, tidy rows of lavender plants. He calmly talks about the harmful effects of dry, windy weather and points out the rows he planted too closely together in 2002 when he started Prairie Lavender Farm.

    After years spent working for others, Neustrom has found a job he loves. His office is only steps away from his back door, yet it’s a world away from anything he’s done before.

    Instead of fighting traffic in Washington, D.C., or shuffling paperwork, he’s tending to 4,500 lavender plants, distilling the flower buds into essential oil, and creating more than 80 products on his 2-acre lavender farm.

    “I really enjoy what I’m doing and I can’t always say that about the careers I’ve had in the past,” he says. “Are there days when I want to go out and kill all of my lavender? Yes. But for the most part I really enjoy it, and I certainly love my daily commute.”

    Neustrom has retired twice — once from the U.S. Navy and once as the director of a rehabilitation agency for people with developmental disabilities. Instead of a leisurely retirement, his wife, Dianne, encouraged him to find something to do with his time.

    He stumbled on the idea of growing lavender while visiting his sister in Austin, Texas. That was the weekend he tagged along to a lavender grower’s conference, met farmers from across the country, and heard about growing lavender as a business.

     

    “I thought, ‘I can go home and do this’ and I did,” he says. “Little did I know that farming was such hard work.”

     

    That occurred to him after sticking 100 lavender plants in the ground. Since then, Neustrom has stretched his skills well beyond planting and growing lavender. He’s become an entrepreneur, an inventor, and a founding officer and current president of the United States Lavender Growers Association (USLGA).

     

    Homegrown And Handmade

     

    It takes about three years for a lavender plant to produce a bundle of 125 to 150 flower stems. As plants age, they produce more stems, so by the time a plant is eight years old it can grow 15 to 20 bundles a year. Multiply those bundles by thousands of plants and there are tons of stems to harvest by hand.

    Once stems are cut from the plants, they’re dried, and the flower buds are removed. Neustrom was doing that by hand, too.

     

    “I used to have to do it myself and it took all winter,” he says.

     

    Eventually he hired help, but labor costs “went through the roof.”

     

    That’s when he designed a bud-stripping machine with special brushes developed by the Fuller Brush Co. A friend built the machine and also helped design a second machine for cleaning the seeds from the buds.

     

    Instead of hand-stripping and cleaning 31 bundles of lavender stems an hour, the two machines can handle 450 bundles. Other large lavender farms have invested in Neustrom’s patent-pending machinery to improve their efficiency, too. Machines are built to order with a $6,000 price tag for the pair.

     

    After buds are cleaned, he uses a small copper still to produce two key products: lavender essential oil and lavender hydrosol. The essential oil is used in making fragrant lotions, soaps, body scrubs, room sprays, candles, and many other products. The hydrosol takes advantage of lavender’s antiseptic and analgesic properties for treating bee stings, burns, scrapes, and poison ivy.

     

    The seeds are the only part of the lavender plants that aren’t made into products. Even the long stems are bundled together and sold as fire starters.

    Growers Band Together

    When first starting out, Neustrom turned to experienced lavender growers for advice and ideas. By 2012, he had become part of a core group of growers who launched a national growers association.

    In just a few years, the growers association has grown to 255 member farms and has already proven its value. Recently a Phytophthora fungus has hit a number of lavender farms with devastating results. This root-killing fungus isn’t new to agriculture, but it is a new problem for lavender growers. Now the association’s education and research committee is working to educate members about the problem, while trying to track down the source of the fungus.

    “We didn’t have this in mind when we formed, but I’m sure glad we have it now,” Neustrom says. “It’s not insurmountable, but we’re having to figure out new ways to approach it.”

    Despite this challenge, lavender is still easy to grow, as long as there’s full sun and good drainage. For those interested in starting a lavender business, Neustrom has a few words of advice: “I would encourage them to do as much homework as possible and visit as many lavender farms as they can.”

    Beginners should ask experienced growers to explain what they decided not to do in order to learn any disadvantages upfront, he says.

    “If you decide to do something,” he says, “you know that from the get-go so you don’t have to try and reinvent the wheel.”