Lavender answers the question
May/June 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Gwen Schoen
Photos by Kelly Hertel
Now what, and what's next on a 12-acre farm.
The key to Jerre and Lesa Hertel's success seems to be based on the question, "OK, now what?"
In 1999, the Hertels moved to Lincoln, a small city and farming community in Placer County. At one time, Lincoln was known for turkey ranches. More recently, the community is gaining a reputation for grapes and, thanks to the Hertels, lavender fields.
Since the Hertels began planting their 12-acre farm with lavender, peddling their plants and promoting the uses for lavender at local farmers markets, they have captured the attention of national magazines and been featured on several television programs. Fame, however, was not their intent when they made the move to Lincoln.
Lesa and Jerre Hertel moved from the suburbs to the country a dozen years ago, never imagining that today they’d be running a busy lavender farm. The family specializes in 35 varieties of the herb, makes a variety of products, runs a gift shop, hosts farm tours, sells at farmers markets and teaches cooking and craft classes.
"We had this big, beautiful, modern home in the Sacramento suburbs, but we had no place for our son Kelly to play. We wanted space for him to grow up and be a kid. That, really, was our only motivation when we moved out here," Jerre said. From the hilltop, at the highest point of their Placer County farm, he can see the fields they have planted and, off in the distance, Lincoln. "Once we got settled in, we looked over the raw land and thought maybe we should do something with the property. Honestly, in the beginning, it never occurred to us to grow lavender."
Originally the couple considered planting chrysanthemums because Lesa's father, David Hitchman, was available to give them plenty of advice. He is recognized internationally as a chrysanthemum judge and for years had been selling his flowers and plants at farmers markets.
With chrysanthemums in mind, Jerre built raised flower beds and installed an extensive watering system. After some research, however, they decided lavender might be a better choice.
"It is fairly low maintenance, important since we both still work full time," Jerre said. He is a health-care administrator and Lesa teaches second grade. "Lavender requires very little water and loves heat, which makes it perfect for the climate here. And most important, rabbits and deer won't eat it."
The Hertels began collecting seeds, 186 varieties in all, which they started in the greenhouse.
"We had this obsession," Jerre said. "Keeping varieties separate was difficult, but we learned the subtle difference between colors, sizes and fragrances. Gradually, we learned which varieties won't tolerate our climate, which ones bloom early and which bloom late."
They settled on 35 varieties that thrive in Lincoln's dry, hot climate.
"Now we have 6 1/2 acres planted in those types," Jerre said. "The fields begin blooming in March and, depending on the variety, we have continual blooms through October. We still have the exhibition gardens with most of the original 186 varieties."
Spanish lavender was the first thing the Hertels planted in quantity.
"People just go gaga over it," Jerre said. "But really, it has no redeeming quality, other than it is pretty."
It wasn't long before people started asking if they could visit the Hertels' fields of purple. The family responded by opening the farm for tours and U-pick opportunities.
"After that, people started asking what they could do with the lavender," Jerre said. "So we did some more research and learned about making essential oils to use for toiletries and how to make crafts with dried flowers."
Eventually, the family had so many tours and open houses that they started doing barbecues and using the lavender in recipes. And that led to cooking demonstrations.
"If you had asked me about doing all this when we first moved out here, I would have laughed," Jerre said. "But now we have two stills that run nearly year-round making essential oils. We have a gift shop here at the farm where we sell sachets, oils, an entire bath and body collection, lotions and sprays. We teach craft classes. We even have cooking classes. How could you ever have planned that?"
Friends and family have provided immeasurable support over the years, Jerre said, "and I'm sure we have provided them with a lot of laughter.
"We planted one of our fields during a thunderstorm," he explained. "And when we needed to clear some land, we found some goats in the neighborhood to do the job. And I put in this extensive watering system before we learned that lavender rarely needs to be watered."
But now, as the lavender fields transform the hills into a blaze of purple, the neighbors seem to enjoy it as much as the Hertels.
"The farm definitely doesn't make a profit. But it pays for itself in other ways," Jerre mused. "It is certainly not a cash cow, heck no. We enjoy what we do and that is the reward."
OK, now what?
"Well, I said we'd never make candles. But guess what? Now we make candles. Who knows what's next?" he said.
Gwen Schoen is a reporter in Sacramento. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about The Lavender Farm in Lincoln visit www.thelavenderfarminlincoln.com.
Modern uses for an ancient herb
- Lavender has been used as an herb for cooking and perfume since ancient times. Traces of it have been found in Egyptian tombs. The Greeks and Romans used it to perfume bathwater. Elizabethan-era women tied bunches of dried lavender inside their clothing and carried bouquets of lavender to sniff if they felt faint.
- While you might not want to tuck dried flowers inside your clothing, you can scent water with dried lavender blossoms and use it to spray clothing or linens before ironing. Just add a few drops of essential lavender oil to distilled water in a spray bottle. Shake it up and let it stand for a few days before using. You can also use this lavender water spray to take the sting out of a sunburn.
- When harvesting buds for cooking or making potpourri, select those that have not opened completely to capture the most flavor and scent. When purchasing lavender for cooking, make sure you buy culinary grade lavender.
- According to California lavender grower Jerre Hertel, Spanish lavender is best used for ornamental purposes rather than cooking.
- Add sprigs of lavender to sugar water when making simple syrup for sweetening berries or making ice cream and lemonade. Remove the sprigs before using the syrup.
- When grilling fish, pork or chicken, place sprigs of dried lavender over the coals to impart flavor to the meat. Place another sprig directly on the meat while grilling to give it a wonderful herb flavor.
- When making bouquet garni, add a few sprigs of lavender to the herb blend. You can also add dried lavender petals to fines herbes mixtures. (The classic fines herbes mixture is finely chopped chervil, chives, parsley and tarragon.)
- Lavender petals can be added to salads for a bit of color. Dried, ground lavender flowers can be substituted for rosemary in many bread recipes.
- To infuse sugar with lavender flavor, place dried flowers in a sealed jar with sugar. Leave it sealed tightly for a few weeks. Sift out the flowers before using the sugar. Use the flavored sugar in recipes and for sweetening tea. It is especially nice sprinkled over sugar cookies.
- To dry lavender for ornamental or potpourri use, cut the flower stems early in the day. Bunch the stems together with a rubber band. Hang bunches, flowers down, in a dark, dry, dust-free place with good ventilation. In a few weeks, when the flowers are completely dry, tie pretty ribbon
s over the rubber bands to make scented decorations for a mantle or to hang on doors.
- Use sprigs of dried lavender to light wood in the fireplace to create a lovely scent.
- Tie sprigs of dried lavender in pretty mesh bags to use as potpourri or to scent linen closets or lingerie drawers.