hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2018


A soothing crop for stressful times

Lavender becomes focus of couple’s back-to-the-land enterprise


David and Diane Allen opened Lavenlair Farm to the public two years ago. The farm in the Washington County town of Fort Ann grows lavender and produces an array of lavender products that the Allens sell at an on-site gift shop, at farmers markets and online. Joan K. Lentini photos


Contributing writer


On a hot summer day, the temperature is pushing 90 at Lavenlair Farm, and that couldn’t be better news for the farm’s owners, Diane and David Allen.
As people across the Northeast sought shelter in the shade, Diane Allen smiled as she surveyed the farm’s picturesque three acres of lavender plants, all in varying shades of purple. The heat was just what the thatches of fragrant blooms needed to help them thrive.

“The first field is English lavender,” Allen explained. “The French lavender will bloom in a few weeks. And after that, there will be one more blooming of the English lavender.”

Because lavender thrives in direct sun and dry soil, it’s typically grown in arid regions such as Provence, in southeastern France. It likes the hot climate of the Mediterranean.

“And not too much water,” Allen said. “Provence gets 18 to 23 inches of rain per year, and we get 43, so we rely on sloping, well-drained soil.”

It was a busy Saturday afternoon at the farm, and while David hammered away at repairs in the barn, Diane dashed across the field carrying a plastic bag filled with lavender-infused ice cubes for lemonade. Once inside the farm’s gift cottage (appropriately painted a soft purple), she mingled with visitors who had taken shelter from the relentless sun.

Some carried bundles of lavender they’d just picked, and all seemed curious about the lavender products of every possible stripe on the shelves -- from bottles of lavender maple syrup to lavender sugar cookies, lavender body lotions, candles, soaps, essential oils, and even laundry balls for clothes dryers.

“People love our lemonade, especially on days like this,” Diane Allen said as she poured chilled samples of the faintly purple beverage.

Proceeds from the homemade lemonade, priced at $2 for an 8-ounce glass, benefit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Allen said all of the farm’s lavender lemonade proceeds from 2018 will be donated to the group in September.

“We chose the cause because of the synergy between lavender’s calming properties, its ability to promote restful sleep, and for having a positive impact on anger management and family dynamics,” she explained. “Our goal is to help those who are hurting by sharing the peace and love generated by the lavender in this beautiful place.”

As customers quietly sampled lavender products in a room filled with the gentle fragrance, Allen alternately answered questions about the varieties of lavender in her fields and when the next farm-to-table dinner would take place.

It quickly became clear that the word is out about the quiet, 80-acre farm atop a hill on Deweys Bridge Road, a couple of miles east of Route 4.

Lisa Fenwick of Fort Ann, a regular visitor to Lavenlair Farm, had brought along her friend, Kelly Bolton, who was visiting for the first time.

“I find lavender so settling and restful,” Fenwick said. “It really takes the edge off the day.”
Bolton seemed impressed by the farm’s offerings.

“I bought almost everything in the store,” Bolton said, smiling as she peered into a shopping bag filled with a lavender neck-wrap, bath salts, soaps, candles and sprays. “I’m amazed at how young this farm is, because it reminds me of the Ali’i Kula lavender farm in Maui, Hawaii, which has been there for many years. I stepped out of the car and was like, ‘Wow.’”


A mission found by chance
In the two years it has been open to the public, Lavenlair Farm has gone from a fledgling idea to a thriving business that includes online shopping, sales at farmers markets and community outreach to area colleges and civic organizations.

The Allens, originally from New Jersey, met via Green Singles more than a decade ago and discovered common ground in more ways than one.

“Our goal was to make a living making a life worth living,” Diane recalled, noting that both she and David wanted to move out of metropolitan New York City. “Our idea for a new business included being stewards to the land and pairing our dream with as many people as possible.”
David said that given their values, lavender turned out to be an ideal crop.

“What we’re trying to do is farm as holistically as possible, and lavender suits that,” he said. “You don’t need a tractor, petro or chemicals, and it’s very low-key and hands-on.”

But the notion of cultivating lavender as a crop came about quite by accident. When the Allens bought their property five years ago, their original plan was to preside over a Christmas tree farm. While they were at a nursery picking up tree saplings, they noticed a discarded lavender plant in the dumpster, and both agreed they couldn’t bear to see it destroyed.

They brought it home, planted it near the saplings, and headed back to New Jersey, from which they were still commuting at the time.

“When we returned five days later, all the saplings had been mowed down by deer, but the lavender plant was intact,” Diane recalled. “Apparently balsam is a deer delicacy.”

That prompted a Google search on growing lavender, and the couple learned the inaugural meeting of the U.S. Lavender Growers Association would be taking place in two weeks and was within driving distance from their New Jersey home. The Allens attended the meeting, and their revised plan began to take root.

Diane said the concept of lavender as a crop has proven to be an idea whose time has come.
“The response is amazing,” she said. “People like to visit us to escape the pace of modern life. A lavender farm is interactive, whether you’re walking our labyrinth, cutting bouquets, or just sitting on one of our stone benches in the field.”

David noted that the farm has expanded to include wellness offerings such as yoga, tai chi and meditation groups.

“Lavenlair is very much a place to heal mind, body, and soul,” he said. “We based it off principles from places like Yaddo and Omega. People can come, relax, reconnect with creativity, and there’s no charge for photographers who visit during our business hours.”

Because of the surge in business after just two years, the Allens have decided they want to move the farm’s gift shop into a large white clapboard building on the property – a building originally built as a Baptist church in 1807. They’re seeking investors to help save the structure, which later served as a one-room schoolhouse, and convert it into a seasonal café and shop.

“We get requests for lunches and events on the farm that we can’t accommodate because we don’t have a commercial kitchen,” Diane explained.

Creating such a kitchen in the renovated building, she added, would allow the farm to share its lavender ice cream and other foods featuring its certified naturally grown culinary lavender.


Cultivating a destination
Some of the success of the Allens’ lavender crop, with its immaculate rows of photogenic purple plant, is the result of the farm’s volunteer program – in which volunteers are assigned a row of lavender to weed, water and groom for the season.

“It’s been a godsend to help David and me to keep the farm as beautiful as it deserves to be,” Diane said, adding that the volunteers receive a Lavenlair Farm T-shirt, early access to event tickets and, after a month of service, a discount in the farm shop.

“At the end of the season, we will be having a thank-you picnic and offering prizes for the best maintained rows,” she added.

As part of their effort to reach out to the surrounding community, the Allens said they have partnered with SUNY Adirondack to offer classes on lavender cultivation and its uses. They’re also collaborating with local Rotary clubs on how to help their Washington County neighbors capitalize on agri-tourism.

“The ideas are endless, from putting up a petting zoo to growing heirloom vegetables to sell at high-end restaurants in the city,” Diane said.

David added that diverse small-scale operations like theirs help fortify the local agricultural economy.

“We see things like lavender and alpaca wool as niche crops and feel strongly about bringing strength and vitality back to the community,” he said.

With a nearby campground scheduled to reopen next year after a period of dormancy, the Allens said they see a growing potential for retreats and classes at the farm. They’re already looking at offering “glamping” options on the farm in seasons to come.

Last season, an inaugural farm-to-table dinner held in the Allens’ barn proved so popular that they’re planning two dinners this year – as well as a Jazz at Sunset concert, with wine and hors d’oeuvres, on Sunday, Aug. 12.

“We’ve been received by our community in ways we never anticipated,” David said. “So many of our visitors are local, and there’s also the element of out-of-state visitors and those visiting Lake George on vacation.”


Cycle of seasons
For local visitors, Diane added, the farm still offers a sense of escape.
“Lavenlair has turned out to be a great stay-cation and women’s day out, and it’s definitely multi-generational in appeal,” she said. “Many drive from Albany just for the day, but we’re even getting people from New York City. A woman came recently on her birthday and walked the labyrinth. As she left, she told us that being here made her day unique and special. We love hearing that.”
The peak-season pace will continue through Sunday of Labor Day weekend, and then Lavenlair will briefly re-open Sept. 21 and 22 for its Harvest in the Country celebration. Then, in preparation for the first frost, polypropylene covering will be laid over the rows of lavender until spring.

“Negative 5 is about all a lavender plant can take, depending on the variety,” Diane said. “Through trial and error, David and I picked the ones which can survive the cold best.”
The final event of Lavenlair’s season will be its 2018 Holiday Open House, from Nov. 30 through Dec. 2.

“It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season and tour the main level of our 200-year-old stone farmhouse,” Diane said. “We’ll be decorated for a lavender-themed Christmas, sell holiday gifts, and serve lavender hot cocoa.”

In January, the Allens follow the snowbirds to Florida to sell their wares six days a week at farmers markets in the Daytona Beach and St. Augustine region.

“We have tons of lavender shipped down to us,” Diane said. “Florida is too humid and moist to grow lavender, and they love it down there.”

Then it’s back to Washington County in mid-April, when a new growing season will begin.

Lavenlair Farm is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through Sept. 2. Visit www.lavenlairfarm.com for more information and for tickets to special events.