Blue Mountain Lavender Farm is a little pop of purple tucked into the rolling greens and golds of the Walla Walla Valley in Southeastern Washington. I visited during their U-pick season, and spent such a relaxing afternoon in late June, picking flowers, and sipping lavender lemonade. The view of the purple and white rows of lavender on a backdrop of alfalfa and wheat fields is just stunning.
The lavender’s fresh scent permeated the air of the entire grounds, lulling me into a mellow mood. For the rest of the day I felt this calm and desire to go a little slower. This faded as the week wore on, but then I could look at and smell my bouquet of lavender mixed with bright yellow and red flowers and be reminded of that feeling.
Is that sense of calm always there on a lavender farm? I had my suspicions that the answer was no, but I learned from owners Karen and Jean-Paul Grimaud, that just like the many varieties of lavender, there are many shades to that answer.
“It’s a little bit of an illusion we create,” Karen says as we sit down on their shaded porch overlooking the fields. Soft music mixes with the trickle of a water fountain in the background. We sip lavender lemonade.
“But that’s what you want to do when you run a business like this. You want to create a certain look and feeling, and then behind the scenes we’re kind of all scrambling around and trying to make it work.”
Her and her husband both agree, though, that they’ve found the good life. That is just what they were searching for when they moved from the suburbs of France nineteen years ago.
“We wanted to carve out a more old-fashioned lifestyle for our family,” Karen says of the decision to leave and start a farm.
“It was just to serve our family’s purpose actually. Our kids were little, we wanted to live in the country. I wanted to stay home with the children. We wanted to generate a little income from the property, and this is what we came up with. It’s something that the kids have been able to be involved with at every level.”
“We weren’t farming or anything [in France], by any stretch of the imagination. We’d led kind of a suburban life up until then. When we moved here we didn’t even have a shovel or hammer or anything,” Karen says, relaxing back on the lawn chair. She wears an apron with the farm’s name embroidered on it; its deep blue a contrast to her wheat-colored hair.
“We were such newbies, didn’t know anything about anything,” she says.
“But it just goes to show that you can learn to do amazing things. With a few good books, and talking with people, it’s amazing what a person can learn.”
With some research, they found the dry climate of Eastern Washington was a good fit for lavender. They hired someone with the right equipment to plow their small patch of land for them.
“The going rate at the time was fifteen dollars to plow out an acre, so we paid him in a bottle of wine, and everyone was happy,” Karen says.
They started with 800 plants on a quarter acre that first year.
Karen recalls her first encounter with the plant. She was working as an administrative assistant at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland (just across the border from where they resided in France). Outside their building was a big planter full of it.
“I’d never seen lavender before. Each morning I would go and just strip a few stems off into my hand, and have this most aromatic handful of flowers,” she says rubbing her hands together. “And I’d take it into my office with me. Then we traveled a bit in Provence [France] with the big lavender fields, and visited a small farm here in the states, owned by teachers. When we had the chance to move to Walla Walla and live in the country and have this lifestyle, we thought that’s what we wanted to grow.”
Her husband, Jean-Paul is a college professor, and the teacher’s schedule worked perfectly with the farm’s, since most of the work happens during summer break.
“I love to be outside and work,” Jean-Paul says. He has wandering over to the porch from the barn to meet me, and chats and philosophizes with us for a bit.
“Sometimes it’s conscious and sometimes it’s not, but I feel like I have found my place,” he says as he leans on a basket of cut lavender on the table. “Sometimes when I’m working out there, I sit down and I take a break and I just enjoy. But you have to be intentional. It’s not natural. And then you realize, ‘Ok, this is good. I love this, this is great.’”
Learning to Grow
They now farm two acres with 25 different varieties of lavender, as well as other flower types to complement the bouquets. Over the last 16 years, they’ve learned how to manage the heat, and get the irrigation just right. It’s only been in the last five years that they feel like they know what they’re doing though.
“When you start seeing yearly cycles and know what’s coming next that’s a good place to be. You know what’s blooming next, you know how you’re gonna use it. You know what to do if it rains,” Karen says.
She pauses for a moment, then adds, “I’m kind of a worrier, and so maybe parallel to getting on top of the growing of lavender was also the learning to not worry about everything.”
Worrying is a skill I’m certainly familiar with, so I lean in to hear what she’s learned.
“This is my new moto this year –there are no lavender emergencies. I mean, really,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes something will kind of feel like an emergency, like if a big tour bus pulls up that you weren’t expecting, that feels like an emergency, but then you think, well, probably not. They can get off the bus and wander around.”
“Something that people have told us many times is that there is a sense of peace out here,” Jean-Paul says, looking out into his fields. “This is part of our family objective as well, is to find peace for ourselves. And sometimes I say, when we close at 5 o’clock, I say, ‘Karen, this is a great place. I like it.’”
Karen quickly adds, “But nothing closes at 5 o’clock. It closes at midnight. We joke a lot about it. We have people that show up early before we open and that is almost a lavender crisis, a lavender emergency. And we have people who stay late, and that’s kind of hard to manage. Because it’s our space.”
Visitors don’t always realize that the farm is their home as well. Work and home life can’t help but blend. At one point in our conversation, one of their daughters comes out from working the boutique and asks if there is any more squash left. She passes us to go into their little fenced vegetable garden, a wooden “Jardin” sign nailed to the entrance. She comes back with an armful of yellow zucchini.
An older gentleman with a camera around his neck who has been wandering around the grounds stops to ask about the types of bees. Karen tells him about them –honeybee and alkali. The alkali don’t produce honey, and visit from the neighboring farm where they help to pollinate the alfalfa.
Right now they are in the busiest part of the year, in the midst of their six-week season when the lavender is in full bloom. Their business has evolved over the years to include the U-pick element, which is fairly unique in a lavender farm.
“We used to do more farmers markets and be away from the farm a lot,” Karen says. “And then as the plants matured we thought, wait a minute, it’s so beautiful here, let’s change what we’re doing and get people to come here.”
The same time visitors are picking their own bouquets, the family is harvesting and drying bundles in the barn to sell, and also packaging the loose buds for culinary use. They’ll go out every day for a couple hours, in twos; one person cuts, and one bundles.
The boutique is what sustains the farm, Karen says. It carries the sachets that Karen and her mother sew, as well as French-imported soaps and essential oils, culinary lavender, and mixes of their lavender lemonade, among other lavender-themed gifts. Much of their dried lavender goes to weddings.
The work outdoors starts over spring break, when the plants begin to come out of their winter hibernation, and the family prepares the fields and grounds for the summer season. Then in late fall the plants need to be trimmed back to control their size and shape, and hardy them up for the cold months to come.
“We put those fields to bed, and go inside by the fire, and it’s delightful.”
This is when she works on creating the products –the unique sachets of lavender they sell in their boutique and online. She has a cozy workroom set up with a large stock of fabrics, ribbons, beads, and “fancy stuff,” and settles into sewing.
“It often strikes me in the winter as ‘Wow, this is my favorite part of the lavender farm, when I’m alone in that little room,” she says. “I’m an introvert, so it’s really hard for me to do this whole public thing and have it at our home. It’s doable, but it’s kind of draining.”
“Jean-Paul, he’s an extrovert,” she adds. “He’ll spend the whole day just roaming the fields, talking with everyone. He loves it.”
A Family Affair
“Something that’s kind of unique is that we have three generation here,” Karen says. “We run the farm as a family. Everyone has their niche jobs, things they’re good at.”
Having their children be a part of what they do was important to them. “I didn’t want my kids to [have the feeling that they] just grow up and not really have to do anything. I didn’t want them to have the impression that life is only good if you can extricate all of the difficulty.”
“Our lifestyle is counter-current to what we have today in society,” Jean-Paul says.
Karen’s parents, who are in their early eighties, live there as well. She says they are always up for a task. Her mother cooks three meals a day for everyone working on the farm all through lavender season, and her father does all of the yard maintenance. They also have other family come to help out, cousins from California, a niece from Europe.
And while Karen is new to the area (she grew up near Seattle), her family is not. Her great-great-grandparents settled in Milton-Freewater, a nearby town. They farmed and ran a nursery from the 1870s up until the 1970s.
“So I kind of feel like I’m carrying the family torch in a way,” she says. “I’d like to think that they would think it was cool that some descendants so much later were interested in growing something.” Their three main fields of lavender are named after her great-great-aunts, Sophia, Louisa, and Francis.
“To be successful, the first thing to do is fall in love with your work.”
This is a quote by Sister Mary Lauretta that Karen likes to remember during the most hectic part of the year, “because sometimes I feel like I’ve maybe fallen out of love with lavender for a little while.” We laugh, but I know exactly what she’s talking about.
There is no bucolic life, even when you are surrounded by lavender fields, even when you are surrounded by what you love to do. But when you intentionally commit to living a certain way, to pursue your passion, there will always be those times that make it all worth it.
It reminds me of when I asked Karen if she ever stops being able to smell the lavender, which she says does happen.
“I can stand in the shop and I don’t notice a thing,” she says. “But when we’re out in the fields, or working with the dried lavender you always smell it.”
Jean-Paul sums up my metaphor this way: “To find peace is to go through moments of frustration,” he says. “You appreciate the peace better, and that’s great.”
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