Purple reign: A splash of lavender in the heartland
By Doug Rich
Lavender was not their first choice, but it turned out to be the best choice for Jack and Kathy Wilson. They started the Washington Creek Lavender farm in 2005 after trying several other specialty crops on their hilltop acreage in rural Douglas County, Kansas.
In 2004 the Wilsons moved to Kansas from Chicago, where Jack was a TV producer and Kathy was a nationally recognized food photographer. Kathy is originally from nearby Lawrence, Kansas, but Jack is from New Jersey.
Jack said even now he will look out the window of their log home and ask his wife, “What is that out there?” and Kathy will say, “For the last time, Jack, that is a tree.”
The idea for moving to Kansas arose when Kathy inherited some land in the valley along Washington Creek. They purchased some land for their house and the top of the hill above their home, which is where they eventually planted lavender. Jack said they tried several crops before settling on this colorful crop.
They tried tomatoes first but a hailstorm wiped out their first crop. Next they planted organic basil. It grew well and a store in Lawrence agreed to buy their crop, but there were some problems. In order to deliver fresh basil, Kathy had to drive up the top of the hill at 4 a.m., shine lights from the truck on the basil to harvest it, clean it, and then deliver it to town.
“I didn’t realize that the weight we were paid on was mostly the stems,” Wilson said. “I took all the leafs off the stem and delivered nice, clean bags of basil leafs that weighed basically nothing.”
The first check from their farm was for $17.45. Their basil experiment came to an abrupt halt.
Finally they had the soil tested and determined that two crops were best suited for their hilltop farm: grapes and lavender.
“I had always heard that if you want to make a little money with wine, spend a lot of money,” Jack said. “So we decided to try lavender.”
They started with a test plot of six plants in 2005. The test was a success, and today they have nearly 6,000 lavender plants on their hilltop farm. Wilson said that lavender likes full sun but does not like wet feet and should be planted on well-drained soil. The hilltop was the perfect spot for their new venture.
Their farm is 100 percent organic, so no pesticides or herbicides are used on the lavender. When new plants are started, the Wilsons add perlite to expand the soil and bone meal. After that the plants’ care consists mostly of weeding and watering. They grow several different varieties including Edelweiss, Grosso, Royal Purple, and Melissa. They said there are 39 species and more than 4,000 varieties of lavender.
This spring they were concerned that some of their plants may have died after the unusually cold winter, but the plants began to green up by the end of May.
Looking back, Jack said they may have developed their business backward. They grew the crop and then looked for a market instead of finding a market and then growing the crop. Thanks to some help from another lavender producer near Topeka and Kathy’s creative talents, they have developed a successful line of products. Jack said Kathy is much better at product development, so he devotes his time to working in the field and sales.
Just as it took some trial and error to discover the right crop for their farm, it has taken some time to develop the right products. Not all of their products have been a success.
Kathy had an idea for a tea ball full of lavender. The idea was not for tea but to hang the ball on the water faucet and let hot water run through it before taking a bath. She said they did not sell at all.
Jack had an idea for a holiday coffee or tea mug. He said he had a very good deal with the mug company and had a lot of red and green mugs but they only sold during the holidays. Coasters for setting your hot mug of coffee or tea on have done much better. The Wilsons have not given up on the idea of a mug and are having a local artist make some with their farm logo on them.
“The funny thing about our products is that they all take some sort of explanation,” Kathy said. “They just don’t sell themselves.”
So far the Wilsons have developed several successful products including sachets in various sizes, eye pillows, lavender by the yard, coasters, closet hangers, neck comforters, dryer sheets, fire-starters, and wreaths. Many of these have their farm logo hand painted by Kathy Wilson. The most popular product has been the dryer sheets that can be put in the dryer or inside a pillow case. Lavender is known as a sleep aid.
Their products are sold at two farmers markets in Lawrence and the City Market in Kansas City, Missouri.
Harvest begins when the stems are a quarter to a third open, Jack said. They cut off a handful at a time, band them together and then hang the upside down in the barn to dry out, similar to drying tobacco. Two to three weeks later the seeds are stripped from the stems. He has been doing this by hand since they started growing lavender, but he purchased a machine to do that job this season.
The leftover stems are banded together and sold as fire-starters.
This summer Washington Creek Lavender farm will begin its first full season as an official agritourism destination. The Wilsons purchased more land on the west side of their farm and built a new road to make it easier for visitors to reach the hilltop fields to see their lavender crop in bloom. In addition to the lavender fields visitors can see the barn where the lavender is dried and the adjoining shop full of lavender products. Wilson is planting a compatible garden in the style of an English garden next to the shop and barn.
“The farming community here has been unbelievably receptive and helpful to us since we started our farm,” Kathy said. “We can’t say enough how good they have been to us.”
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at email@example.com.