W. Colo. on the cusp of having a major lavender industry
Free Press Gardening Columnist
The lavender industry in western Colorado is booming. The number of lavender farms and the number of plants at established farm are increasing. As with most new agricultural industries, growers needed to find out if lavender was economically feasible. The first problem hampering the development of the lavender industry in western Colorado is a lack of distillation equipment. A mobile 35-gallon still is available for hire but even this is too small for some of the farms already in production. As more growers add to their acreage, the bottleneck in distilling the lavender crop will need to be corrected.
Sprigs and Sprouts of Palisade purchased an oil still capable of distilling 10 gallons of plant material at a time. Packing and baby-sitting a still all day long for a week or so is not my idea of an efficient process. At this time, however, that is what needs to be done. I purchased a small oil still last year, mainly for demonstration purposes. This is an 8-gallon pot still capable of processing about 2-1/2 to 3 pounds of material at one time. Consequently, like other growers I am looking to other individuals who can build stills for the distillation of the oil at a very economical rate.
Currently, the distillation of oil is costly. Those with stills can ask and receive whatever fee they are asking. Commercially-produced stills run in the thousands and the distiller needs to recoup their costs so taking half of the oil produced as their fee is common. That is a hefty cost to the grower who has spent several years looking after the plants to lose half of the possible income to the distiller. This, however, is going to change in the near future.
Joseph Brown, a glass blower in Palisade, is building stills from garbage cans and other locally available materials, creating low-cost but efficient stills. He is basing his designs on data generated by E.F.K. Denny, a researcher in Tasmania who spent decades perfecting the distillation process. Last Monday, Joseph beta-tested several of his stills at my lavender farm in Mack (actually this is Valley Grown Nursery’s farm, I’m just using some of their land to grow lavender). Since lavender essential oil reacts with all metals other than stainless steel, he lines his stills with stainless steel. The stainless steel has to be number 304 to produce food-grade quality oil. Lavender essential oil is so reactive it eats through soft plastics. A drop added to a Styrofoam cup of water will eat right through it but very safe for use in cosmetics, in aromatherapy, and even when applied directly to our skin. I use it for bug bites and cuts. It is a great antiseptic.
Another bottleneck in the industry involves an efficient method of cleaning the buds. Buds are used in potpourri, in cooking, drinks, pillows and other craft items. Currently, growers are doing this by hand. The process involves the use of three or four trays with screens of different sizes. It takes a considerable amount of time to remove the bracteoles, bracts, stems, dead leaves, and flowers from the calyces. The calyces are the structures containing the fragrant oil.
Darrell Sartin has been working on a bud cleaner for a year. We tested this using some of my buds last year and will be testing it again once he has received the screens he needs. He is retrofitting an old seed cleaner to accomplish this task. Once his unit is perfected it will be a tremendous benefit to our fast-growing lavender industry. The Pacific Northwest has access to a two-story seed cleaner that was retrofit for their lavender industry. The one Darrell is developing is a smaller, mobile unit. Once Joseph’s essential oil stills and Darrell’s bud cleaner are perfected, the production of lavender in western Colorado should increase exponentially.
GETTING THE LAVENDER TO MARKET
Marketing the oil, buds, and dried and fresh bouquets is another task that needs to be addressed and this opens up possibilities for other services. Most growers sell what they produce in their shops and at farmers’ markets. This market, however, is limited. The oil and buds are used in other products such as shampoos, soaps, lotions, food products, and alternative medicine practitioners, but the local markets for these products will eventually will be saturated. The sale of these products to consumers in other areas of the U.S. will require a little bit more finesse than is currently being used. Many countries import lavender oil for sale in the U.S. market because U.S. growers can’t fill the need. Some countries use interesting methods to promote and sell their oil. Bulgaria sells their lavender oil to U.S. buyers using the phrase “ethically farmed.” I don’t really know what that means but it is a catchy phrase.
The Internet is an obvious way for growers to promote and sell their products, but very few growers have the marketing or internet skills to use the internet effectively. Some don’t have the time or forte to devote to the internet while other lavender growers are only interested in growing and processing their lavender into oil, bouquets or buds. As the lavender industry grows, more services will be required and hopefully local entrepreneurs can assist. Otherwise growers will need to outsource their business needs. I wonder if web developers in Bulgaria would be interested in promoting and selling western Colorado’s lavender?
Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the Colorado State University Extension. Reach him at Curtis.Swift@alumni.colostate.edu, 970-778-7866 or check out his blog at http://SwiftsGardeningBlog.blogspot.com. He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.
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