Colorado’s lavender industry finding a fragrant niche

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PALISADE — Cherries are nice, but Paola Legarre has bigger and better plans for her cherry farm nestled in the middle of Colorado’s wine and fruit country.

The plans involve  neither wine nor fruit. In their place, Legarre is growing the state’s largest lavender crop.

When it comes to lavender, “largest” is a relative concept. Her 3 acres of plants is tiny   compared even with  the modest  scale of western Colorado’s grape, peach, pear and apple farms.

But  lavender is kicking up a fragrant stir.  Locally grown blossoms and products made from their oil are showing up in grocery stores, gift shops and even Western Slope breweries and wineries.

Growers are raising lavender in everything from backyard  patches  to Legarre’s precision  rows replete with drip irrigation.

“I lost my whole cherry crop (to freezes) this year,” said Legarre, owner of Sage Creations Organic Farm in Palisade. “But lavender is going to help offset that loss.”

The number of commercial lavender  farmers has increased nearly tenfold over the past four years — an impressive   growth rate except for the fact that the  30 or so growers are collectively small enough that the size and value of their crop doesn’t register in any agricultural statistics.

The industry is tinged with optimism about its potential, balanced by  awareness of fads that never panned out. Remember emus?

“Anybody who goes into lavender thinking it’s going to be their path to retirement, I say, ‘Whoa, slow down,’ ” said    Bob Korver, a veteran of four years of  lavender growing at his Green Acres U-Pick farm in Palisade.

Korver and other growers note that the key to measurable profits  is not just in the farming but in producing and selling  lavender products   — a step that Korver so far is unwilling to make.

“The people making money off it are creating the value-added products,” he said. “As a straight grower, no one is showing me the money yet.”

In contrast, Legarre produces  an  array of lavender goods, including lotions, oils, wreaths and sachets, and sells them from a small store at  her farm on East Orchard Mesa above Palisade.

“There is a major agritourism aspect to it,” she said.

Legarre also uses two greenhouses on her property to  grow starter plants for other lavender farmers.

Colorado State University extension economist Rod Sharp estimates Bees flutter around Lavender plants at Sage Creations Organic Farm in Palisade, Colorado on Thursday morning, Sept. 19, 2013.  (William Woody, Special to The Denver Post)

that  startup costs for a 1-acre plot with 3,500 plants and a drip irrigation system are about $19,000. Those plants, once they mature in a couple of years, could yield annual profits ranging from $17,000 to $47,000 — assuming there is a ready market.

 

Questions about the depth of the lavender market are largely unanswered. Analysts say Colorado’s small-scale production  can’t compete with large overseas growers for supplying major customers such as  cosmetics companies.

Much of the lavender grown in Colorado is sold at craft fairs, gift shops or you-pick farms.

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into commercial products.

Three years ago, Palisade-based St. Kathryn Cellars  concocted an experimental batch of white wine infused with lavender. Winemaker Brian Stevens was skeptical about consumer acceptance. But  it’s now the winery’s top seller.

“People tend to just rave about it,” Stevens said.

Lavender flavoring has been tried by other local beverage makers, including Grande River Vineyards, Kannah Creek Brewing Co. and Colorado Cider Co.

Grower Curtis Swift has 1,260 plants in two Mesa County fields and plans to add 550 more. Swift  also serves as a horticultural consultant to other lavender farmers.

He said Colorado’s climate and soils are well suited to the crop. While not many growers  focus exclusively on lavender, Swift sees it as a complementary crop that can be planted effectively between rows of fruit trees.

“It’s a good crop,” he said. “You have to look for your markets, but I think people can make it work.”

http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_24193263/colorados-lavender-industry-finding-fragrant-niche