Lavender and Bees

Lavender and Bees

Lavender and bees go together!  The following is an excerpt from  Farming Soul: A Tale of Initiation and tells how the bees helped us get started marketing lavender.

June 10 is generally the beginning of the lavender harvest for the flowers we dry. The work begins before sunrise, as we try to get the day’s harvest in by 10 a.m., noon at the latest. The life forces in the plants rise in the morning hours, we have been taught. Later in the day, they sink back into the earth.

We have the system down now: Natalio cuts the stalks in handfuls and his son Albion puts a rubber band around each bunch and stacks it with others in groups of ten. Donald loads them onto the trailer behind our small, four-wheeled motorcycle and drives them to our homemade dryer, a cargo container that Donald has outfitted with heater, fans, and racks. He hangs the bunches, each the size of a pound of spaghetti, upside down to dry for two days.

We dry the lavender in the dark and in heat that does not exceed 120 degrees, then take the bunches down one-by-one and clean them by rubbing their stems together, knocking out the leaves and bind weed that may have dried inside the bunch. We can handle about a thousand of the bouquets at once, and we have a window of about five or six days to get the dried crop harvested. If the flowers open too much, the bouquets will shatter.

We have planted four distinct areas on our ranch with lavender and Natalio watches the crop carefully, taking note where it is flowering out first. We cut the lavender when only a calyx or two has unfolded its purple petals to the bees. Under this regimen, we can only get about three or four lockers full, so it is important to make sure the lavender is drying efficiently and that we start as soon as the first calyxes unfold.

For the last two years we have sold out long before the next harvest, but it has not always been this way. We planted the lavender at the suggestion of our viticulturist. Some of our vines were struggling and he had just been to a seminar on lavender. He said we could sell every stem for three or four cents. With dollar signs in our eyes, we planted the crop, thinking that each plant would yield from $15 to $22 dollars. With 3,500 plants, that grosses 52 to 77 thousand dollars!

We soon learned it would not be such easy money. Our first year of harvest, we lined up a buyer who said that he would take the whole crop, although warning us it would not be at three to four cents a stem. He had asked us to bring him a bunch of the grosso, our main cultivar, in early June so he could determine the precisely right timing for harvest. I never will forget the day Donald and I took a couple of bunches to him and he dismissed us, saying, “Uh, I don’t want grosso this year!” We had 3,500 lavender plants, each with 500-700 stems, and in ten days they would begin to bloom. I thought I would throw up, but Donald, used to the grape industry, informed me that harvest often presents emergencies, so not to fret. We would simply go into high gear and find other markets for the lavender.

Although we had planted the crop for profit, Donald and I were by now totally seduced by the lavender experience. Walking into the purple sea, you become aware of a buzzing presence. Bees are everywhere! Of course there are honey bees, but there are all of the native bees, too: orchard bees and yellow-faced bumble bees, carpenter bees and mason bees. The longer you stand in this hive of a lavender field, the more you forget why you entered in the first place. The earth draws you to it like a magnet and you sit, mesmerized by the den of buzzing.

And the fragrance! That first year, the scent of it mellowed us all out. At night, we opened our bedroom window to the lavender field we had planted to the east of the house, the pungency of the flowers protecting our sleep, and when the sun rose, the purple was so intense it hurt our eyes. I sometimes spread our laundered sheets over the rows of plants so our bed could be perfumed with this grace.

However seduced we were that first year, we were also facing the reality of a lot of unsold lavender. So having signed up for the Friday evening Chef’s Market in Napa, I loaded our Jeep with a table and checked tablecloth, an umbrella and chair, and tubs of the freshly cut lavender. On the way downtown, I had a talk with the lavender. “Lavender,” I said, “you are beautiful and seductive, very sweet and useful, but we need your help! You are going to have to help with the marketing, or (and I don’t say this as a threat but only a fact) we are going to have to pull you! We cannot afford to grow a plant that requires so much labor and has no market whatsoever.” Then I let it go.

The Chef’s Market meets from Memorial to Labor Day. On our first evening as vendors in mid-June, the street was lined with farmers selling their produce, local onions and honey, flowers and greens. It took a little while to find the market manager to direct us to our spot in front of an old stone building. After setting up the table, my husband and I pulled out the tubs of lavender. Later people told us they could smell it a block away. And people were not the only ones who smelled it. From all over downtown Napa, bees came! In great numbers, they covered the lavender.

I’ve noticed that whenever bees arrive on the scene, the energy level goes up a notch or so, and this was no exception. People were not sure whether to be frightened or excited, but most were the latter. Occasionally, someone would ask me to brush a bee away so she could smell the flowers. Each evening, we sold out.

That year we also sold fresh lavender at supermarkets and hotels. My youngest sister and her husband and four children visited, and we drafted them to help us harvest and sell the lavender, making lavender wands and other products to take to market. Fortunately, we were able to sell a good portion of our lavender fresh that year.

Then, in early July, when the lavender was fully blossomed out, a reporter contacted us about doing a story on our organic ranch. When he arrived, he too was seduced by the lavender and the bees. At the end of the afternoon, he noticed that some of the bumble bees stuck their proboscises down into the pistils of the lavender calyxes to spend the night. He arrived before sunrise the next morning, and the morning after that, to photograph the bees waking up, backing out of the calyxes, and flying away. He shot the intense purple at sunrise, and the lavender being cut into burgundy sheets for distillation for essential oil (for we had decided to distill what we could not sell). He spent some fifteen hours photographing, and his beautiful images ended up in two-page articles in two Sunday papers.

This was our debut in the lavender market. We sold out our crop that year, and we gave thanks to the lavender and the bees for being our marketing buddies and very good friends.