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Life with lavender

Missouri farmers find the sweet smell of success with this fragrant, flowering crop

love having dirt on my hands,” said Katie Lockwood, grinning from ear to ear as she walked into the drying barn from the fragrant fields of Battlefield Lavender in Centralia, Mo. There is a true sense of joy and calm here, not only in the vibrant fields but also in the retail shop where customers are treated to the enticing aroma of lavender, a beautiful array of colors and the soothing sounds of “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” Frank Sinatra, playing in the background.

The foundation of this tranquil oasis started to form more than 20 years ago, when Katie and her husband, Jason, started dabbling in hobby farming at their home in nearby Columbia.

“We had a small piece of land where we enjoyed gardening and experimenting,” said Katie who, along with Jason, works full time for the University of Missouri’s Information Technology Department.

Their hobby farming dream began to take root in 2011 when they purchased a home in Centralia with a few acres of open space. “It was land we could work with,” Katie said.

Strawberries, elderberries, blackberries, garlic, dill and different vegetables and herbs were among the first crops the Lockwoods produced. The couple learned how to save seeds, propagate plants and reclaim and recycle water. In 2016, they decided they wanted something more from their endeavors in the dirt. In their research of gourmet crops, lavender kept coming up.

“We had never heard of a lavender farm anywhere in the Midwest, much less than in the middle of Missouri,” Katie said. “We wondered if it was possible to grow here.”

“We learned that there was more than one variety of lavender and many different choices out there,” Jason added. “And we decided that this might be the right crop for us.”

Lavender learning curve 
Lavender is indigenous to the desert and arid areas of the Mediterranean, parts of Asia and India, as well as certain regions of Europe and Africa. A member of the mint family, this aromatic flowering plant has been cultivated and used for more than 2,500 years.

The historical uses of lavender are many, from mummification in Egypt to bathing in ancient Rome and even protection from the plague. Today, lavender seems to be everywhere, spreading its purposes and benefits into many industries such as cosmetics, gourmet foods and medicine.

“Lavender is more popular than ever,” said Kelly McGowan, a horticulture field specialist for the University of Missouri Extension in Springfield. “And the lavender community is a great resource because farmers want to learn from farmers, and gardeners want to learn from gardeners.”

McGowan knows about the challenges and rewards of planting lavender in Missouri. She and her team received a Specialty Crop Grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture to study whether lavender was a viable crop for Missouri.

With the grant, the team planted a few lavender plots with different varieties around the state—Springfield, Ste. Genevieve, Kirksville and Mt. Vernon. For three years, the researchers were able to evaluate what works and what does not for producing lavender here. They wrapped up the project in September 2023 and will soon publish a “Growing Lavender in Missouri” guide for commercial growers and home gardeners.

McGowan and the Lockwoods stress the importance of making sure lavender is planted in the right soil. Taking multiple soil samples and having them analyzed properly are keys to the success of this crop, McGowan said. Lavender thrives in well-draining areas and performs best in neutral to slightly alkaline soils.

While preparing their fields, the Lockwoods discovered pockets of clay that had to be worked through for the right texture. They amended and supplemented the soil to improve the pH levels and tested numerous times before they could dig any deeper into their dream. They said they received a tremendous amount of help and guidance from a consultant in Washington state, where lavender farms are more prevalent.

“He asked for our climatology study and soil analysis. We worked with MU Extension to get samples and had multiple tests done throughout the years to send him,” said Katie. “The consultant made some recommendations, and we ordered 288 plants from him.”

After more than two years of research and preparation along with support from family and friends, the Lockwoods were ready to break ground on their unique venture. In May 2018, with the help of a farming neighbor who laid out “razor-straight rows,” Katie said, the lavender plants were ready to go into the ground.

“With all the initial work behind us and eight rows of lavender in the ground, we just watched,” she said. “It was slow growing, but by the end of the season, the plants looked strong. We lost a few over the winter, but we were very excited.”

While lavender is a perennial that will last for several years under the right conditions, McGowan said growers can count on losing some plants. “Learn to propagate from cuttings so you have backups,” she added. “There are many different varieties, so experiment with different cultivars.” For example, she said the Spanish variety does not do well in Missouri. The Lockwoods can attest to that.

Even with Missouri’s variation in climates and soil types, McGowan said her team is finding favorite lavender varieties for the state.

“Cultivar trials have been a part of this research on both Lavandula and English varieties,” she said. “Lavandulas that have been successful include Provence, Phenomenal, Super, Gros Bleu and Grosso. English varieties that work well include Hidcote, Munstead, Royal Velvet and Folgate.”

Depending on the location, lavender plants might need to be covered during the winter. McGowan recommends allowing the crop to go dormant before covering.

“Some of the biggest challenges we had with the lavender were extreme temperature fluctuations and heavy rains,” she said. “We also learned that lavender doesn’t like wet feet. In Missouri, it must be planted in raised rows to help with soil drainage.”

For the Lockwoods, the 2019 summer harvest was small yet encouraging, and they began selling their lavender products at the Columbia Farmers Market.

“We didn’t know how people were going to react, but it was wonderful,” Katie said. “There are folks who love this plant—just love it. They feel it in their soul. That reaction charged us up and gave us some great ideas.”
Dream in motion

Riding on those positive waves, the Lockwoods were ready to expand the operation. They prepared the rest of the field that fall so they could plant more lavender in the spring of 2020.

“The field and rows were looking great, and we were excited to do more. We planted grass between the rows so we would be ready to plant in the spring. We ordered 2,100 plants in October,” Katie said. “Then COVID hit. We had no idea what would happen with our hiring and needed to figure out how we would get this done. Planting 2,100 plants doesn’t happen in an afternoon.”

Thankfully, Katie continued, both of the Lockwoods’ sons were home from school, and they had friends who wanted to get out of the house.

“We talked through our procedures, distanced ourselves and started planting,” she said. “It worked great. The kids had a great time, and we built out the rest of the field with their help.”

With new rows of purple and white lavender exploding in the field by September 2020, Battlefield Lavender was bursting at the seams with blooms.

The Lockwoods knew they had to clip back the buds so the plant could establish a deep root system, but it was too much for them to do alone. Their oldest son suggested that they host a fall “you-pick” event for Labor Day weekend. After clearing it with county officials, they posted the event on Facebook and, Katie said, “It absolutely blew up!”

With only their farmers market tent, trugs (oblong shallow baskets used for flower harvests) and measuring gauges handmade by Jason, and snipping tools they had on hand, the Labor

Day event was a huge success and marked the true beginning of the Lockwoods’ lavender enterprise.

“I think we had 700 people here over that weekend,” Katie said. “And we thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is going to work.’ We felt like we were off to the races.”

“We never really thought this would be our path,” Jason added. “Our thought was just to sell in the farmers market. But our dream changed quickly.”

Since then, the Lockwoods have built a barn for drying, opened a retail shop that sells handmade items from the farm as well as a curated selection of other products, and upgraded their greenhouse. Today, Battlefield Lavender has more than 2,400 plants and 16 varieties of lavender.

The farm is open year-round, offering craft classes, tours and information about soil testing, plant selection, transplanting, irrigation, harvesting, drying and plant care. The farm has a luffa tunnel, honeybee hives, essential oil stills and a pollinator plot.

“We love to share, and we have the best time doing it,” Katie said. “To have something like this, something that’s so pervasive, it just brings such joy. You walk out in the morning, and you see it, feel it, touch it, smell it. It’s really life-affirming.”

CLICK TO READ the full April 2024 Issue of Today's Farmer magazine.

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