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


Arts & Culture July 2021


Soothing scent, striking color

Lavender is key crop at a Columbia County floral farm


Seen across a field of lavender in bloom, visitors gather at a pick-your-own operation at Vine Gate Lavender Floral Farm in Hillsdale, N.Y. Susan Sabino photo


Seen across a field of lavender in bloom, visitors gather at a pick-your-own operation at Vine Gate Lavender Floral Farm in Hillsdale, N.Y. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


As a heat wave swept into the Taconic hills in early June, Ron Reinken toiled in the bright afternoon sun, pulling errant weeds from the newly budding rows of lavender plants that would soon morph into rows of bright purple bouquets.

“Actually,” he remarked with a smile, “this is just the kind of weather lavender plants love.”
The fragrant, deep-purple plant, so prevalent in the arid fields of southeastern France, has taken root in Columbia County thanks to the vision of Reinken and his wife, Maria, who run Vine Gate Lavender Floral Farm.

They began the venture five years ago after Ron retired from a job as a school administrator in Long Island. The couple wanted to do more than just retire to the upstate hills, he recalled.
“I wanted to create a community around what I grew, and the lavender plant is so universally appealing and healing,” he said. “I researched the use of lavender in this country and found books that date back centuries to the first settlers. Lavender has such a long history for healing and medicinal uses. It’s an absolute joy to use.”

For Reinken, the decision to grow lavender on a commercial scale was a full-circle moment. Years ago, he earned an undergraduate degree in horticulture from Cornell University.
“I worked for years in education but ended up coming back to horticulture,” he explained.
His background in horticulture has helped with the not-so-easy-to-grow lavender plant, which thrives in dry, hot temperatures and drier soil -- and is easily lost to harsh conditions in the winter months.

“Luckily, the parcel of land we have for the lavender is sandy and gravelly,” he explained. “Maria and I love the plant. Lavender is tricky to grow, and we were intrigued by the science behind yielding it year to year.”

Being novices to actual farming, they began slowly six years ago with just a few lavender plants.
“We wanted to learn about the plants and how it was to grow them, so when we were ready to plant greater quantities, it would be perfected,” he explained.

Pick-your-own season
On a Saturday, Reinken had spent the morning selling his wares at the Copake Hillsdale Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., after traveling to Kent, Conn., the day before for the farmers market there. He still had 22 rows of lavender plants to weed before he could quit for the day.

He pointed to a patchwork of bright colors at the far corner of his lavender field. Waving in the afternoon breeze were flowers of a wide variety -- zinnias, snapdragons, lisianthuses, lilies, cosmos, marigolds, ageratum, strawflower, peonies, gomphrenas, dahlias, astilbes and yarrow. Vine Gate sells them in floral arrangements and wreaths at farmers markets.

In the beginning, retail sales were limited to dried and fresh lavender. A few years ago, when the Reinkens began selling their lavender at Random Harvest Market in Craryville, they were inspired to expand their product line to include lavender wraps and pillows, sugar scrubs, and lavender-felted drier balls.

They built a base of customers at farmers markets and were enjoying brisk sales of their products when the arrival of Covid-19 abruptly shut everything down last year.
“Because of the restrictions and the farmers markets being shut, we decided for the first time to open the farm up to you-pick, and it turned out to be very successful,” Reinken said. “We did socially distancing so customers felt safe, and they loved being amongst the plants. Lavender is very soothing.”

Now that pandemic restrictions have eased considerably, they’re back at both markets but will still continue the pick-your-own operation through July. The farm has a small, neatly appointed shed that serves as a retail space for dried lavender products.

Reinken said that because the lavender crop bloomed early this year, there might be a second blush of it in September.

Although the farm does not sell any food products currently, Reinken said they hope to offer lavender-infused lemonade, and he enthusiastically revealed that the farm just partnered with Mielke Confections in Great Barrington, Mass., to create a dark chocolate and lavender truffle.
Trent Kinney, who owns the chocolate shop along with husband Steven Kinney, said Vine Gate’s lavender has proven to be an enticing ingredient in their handmade chocolates.

“We sell a dark chocolate bar with blueberry, lemon and lavender, which is a nice back-end floral flavor at the end,” Trent said.

Their lavender truffle is sweetened with local honey, and their butterfly-shaped lavender milk chocolates are popular with kids.


Calming and healing
Vine Gate currently grows 14 varieties of lavender, each having a slightly different quality.
“Some varieties are good for display and crafting, and others are perfect for cooking or flavor infusions,” Reinken explained. “There are so many applications for lavender: You can infuse the buds in water to make lemonade; make a simple syrup reduction; make teabags out of the dried buds; or let them infuse in balsamic vinegar for a few days.”

The farm’s line of soaps, creams, sugar scrubs, cleaners, sachets, neck wraps and eye pads continue to sell well at markets and at the farm’s retail space or online. Future plans include the creation of an essential oil.

“It’s a long process to do it right,” Reinken said. “There’s a lot of cutting corners in the essential oil business, and we want ours to be as quality as possible.”

He said lavender is more than just a product; it’s an experience.
“Last year, we started doing some mental health experiences at the farm by offering sound baths and meditation amongst the plants,” Reinken said.

Certified sound practitioner and energy healer Glendy Yeung will be returning to the fields again this summer to conduct sound baths with her quartz “singing” bowls.
“People can get into a much deeper meditative state with sound,” Yeung said. “I have a soft spot for lavender and its healing properties, and this is the perfect pairing. Lying beside the lavender plants, coupled with the sound vibrations, you tune in to the body and listen. It creates a coherence.”

This year’s sound bath events begin July 10 and take place every other week.
“There’s something calming about just being near lavender,” Reinken said. “We watch visitors get out of the car, take a deep breath and slowly exhale. The vendor next to me at the Kent Farmers Market says she feels relaxed just being near all the lavender.”

Vine Gate, started nearly six years ago as a tentative experiment, has grown into a destination as well as being the source of a sought-after product line.

“The farm has become a place where people come to take a time-out,” Reinken said. “It’s definitely unique, because you don’t see lavender in the Northeast all that often. We’ve developed a following. Some come to pick; others just come to say hello. It’s exactly the type of community we wanted to create with the farm, and we have.”


Visit www.vinegatelavender.com for more information on Vine Gate Lavender Floral Farm and its products and events.