PALISADE (AP) – 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 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.
Some of it is finding its way 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.”