Lavender-growing is not something one commonly associates with New Zealand, yet over the last three decades it has become a growth industry—of a modest sort. Lavenders were among the earliest plants introduced to New Zealand by Europeans.
The first commercial planting of any size occurred back in the 1970s. Today four dozen farms scattered throughout both islands produce lavender products commercially. They vary in size from small enterprises with a few thousand plants to quite large establishments with tens of thousands. Notwithstanding the intensive time and labour demands, there is money to be made from lavender. At the larger places, such as Whitebay World of Lavender in the Esk valley or Lavender Downs near Christchurch, the traveller can stop off and buy various lavender products as well as coffee and cake.
Lavenders are unfussy plants and easy to grow. They make few demands of their owner. Few pests or diseases afflict New Zealand-grown lavenders. The plants flourish in any free-draining soil with an abundance of sun.
Lavenders are a group of about 30 flowering plants that belong to the mint family. Some of them are annuals and others shrubs. Most of them originate from southern Europe including the Canary Islands, down into tropical north and east Africa and across to Arabia and southern India. Two main species are widely cultivated, common lavender Lavandula angustifolia (formerly L. officinalis) with a range of varieties known as spicas, and the Spanish Lavandula stoechas. Spanish lavenders are tolerant of a range of conditions, while the English lavenders (introduced by the Romans) prefer a slightly alkaline soil. The French-bred spica Lavandula x intermedia “Grosso” is the leading lavender oil worldwide.
However, the plants are not just grown for their oil. Flower spikes are used in arrangements of dried flowers and in pot-pourris. Dried and sealed in pouches, they are placed among clothing to give a fresh pleasant fragrance and as a deterrent to moths.
Lavender flowers yield abundant nectar which bees transform into a high quality honey. This honey is produced primarily around the Mediterranean and marketed worldwide as a premium product. Chefs in and around Provence, France, have used lavender as a herb in their cuisine for centuries. It imparts a slightly sweet and elegant flavour to most dishes. The dried buds or flowers of lavender are utilised, though some chefs experiment with the leaves as well. It is the buds that contain most of the essential oil of lavender, in which both the scent and flavour of the plant are concentrated.
Just a few years back lavender farms in New Zealand outnumbered those in Australia, but today the Aussies have caught up and are leaving the Kiwis in their wake.
A typical New Zealand operation is Taupo Lavender Farm. In the past four years its 50,000 plants have taken over the lives of owners Richard Cade and Wendy Relph.
My first encounter with Richard and Wendy—and with their plants—was in the summer of 2005, when Danvers Devereux, owner of bath-and-body company Les Floralies, took me to meet them. Ever since, I have been learning more than I ever needed to know of the joys of lavender.
My introductory lesson came from Danvers’ interest in Taupo Lavender Farm’s particular product. Like chardonnays, not all lavender oils are created equal. They vary not only with plant variety but also with soil, aspect, climate, latitude and altitude. Taupo Lavender Farm is sited on poor soils derived from the local volcanic rocks, while the relatively high altitude and cool climate mean the farm’s crop ripens three to four weeks later than its lowland equivalents. Conditions are somewhat akin to those of south Canterbury and Otago.
The upshot is a distinctive product: High Country Lavender Oil. Danvers describes it eloquently: “A delightful aroma with light green grassy notes and slightly woody underlying tones”. It is these characteristics that Danvers taps to produce his unique blends of essential oils, which he now exports to a number of countries, many with home-grown lavender industries, including France. Importantly, Richard and Wendy are able to supply “quality with both quantity and continuity”. But that quantity is quite modest when compared with the output of more traditional farm products. All told, New Zealand produces between 700 and 1000 litres of lavender oil each year.
As with a good Kiwi chardonnay, it is the specific characters of High Country oil, along with its superior quality, that enable it to compete with cheaper, mass-produced oils from eastern Europe.
Richard and Wendy acquired their holding by happenstance. They had never planned to get into lavender, but Wendy had decided big-city life in Wellington was absolutely positively not for her. She was keen to relocate to The Mount. But then there were the Andalusian horses. Richard had long loved the breed.
“A couple of years before I met Wendy, I decided that if I didn’t get off my backside and start dealing with horses and getting into breeding them, then the only person who would be upset about it at the end of my life would be me.”
He owned a couple of mares and was keen to acquire more. Clearly a block of land with some character could offer a judicious compromise.
Serendipity struck when Richard found 210 hectares for sale near Taupo. The place had loads of character, but it also came with 50,000 lavender plants, which wasn’t quite what Wendy had had in mind. However, Richard pointed out there was plenty of room for horses, and Wendy clearly recalls being assured that he was going to bulldoze all the plants out.
It took a little while to finalise all the details, and when the papers were signed in December 2003 it transpired the lavender harvest was due. The upper field was a glorious, beckoning, purple haze in the Taupo sun. Wendy weakened.
“It did look pretty good. We decided to give it a go.”
The summer of 2007 saw their fourth harvest. It is increasingly unlikely that Wendy, now promoting her own line of lavender products countrywide, will hold Richard to his promise.
One of the key selling points for Wendy and Richard’s oil is that it is grown to organic-certification standards. The only fertiliser applied is a small amount of lime every couple of years. Importantly, they do not apply synthetic sprays. Consequently, their season starts in November with the weeding. Or maybe that should be “The Weeding”. Four harvests down the track, Richard has learned this aspect of lavender-farming holds its own realities.
“Every job has a %#*@ component. In lavender-farming it’s The Weeding!”
But weeding is all-important. Any weeds growing up through a lavender bush at harvest are likely to be cropped and thus to contaminate the final oil product. It is essential that all are removed. On an organic farm this must be done by hand, and on the 30 hectares planted at Taupo Lavender Farm the chore can continue through December and well into January. Wendy and Richard began their very first weeding on New Year’s Eve.
“We started early in the morning and came back home at 12 o’clock,” Richard recalls. “We had lunch and planned to do another couple of hours. We did just one and then took a look at one another and said, ‘We are not doing any more.’ It absolutely killed us.
“From then on we started at 6am, worked to midday and that was it. In the afternoon, when you’re close to the ground and there’s no cloud in the sky, it gets into the mid-30s.”
In their first two seasons the weeding took a couple of months. They continued to do it themselves except when they could press-gang family members into lending a hand. In the two seasons since, they have found backpackers in Taupō anxious to earn spare cash. These folk have camped on the farm, and the result has been that the worst of the weeding has been completed in just over a couple of weeks.
In 2007, Wendy and Richard also mowed around the rows of lavender more intensely than in previous years, and they are investigating using steam as much as possible to suppress weeds. Nonetheless, any weeds in the middle of the plants still have to be removed by hand.
Once the weeding is over, harvesting follows within one to four weeks, depending on the weather. In 2006 it started appreciably earlier than in 2005, thanks to a protracted hot spell in December–January.
Following rain, some two to three days of hot sunny weather are needed before harvesting can commence. Any dew, too, must have evaporated from the plants, which means work starts at about 9.30 to 10am. The lavender is cut so as to take off no more stalk than is required for easier handling. The bulk of the crop is cut with a conventional tractor-powered harvester; however, this leaves a considerable number of uncut stems either side of a row.
Shortly after buying the farm, Richard imported a portable mechanised tea-bush cutter of a kind in common use on plantations in Japan. This they have used every season with considerable success. Two passes along each row ensure most flower heads are gathered, with little need for subsequent pruning. Richard is now considering buying a second machine.
However, it takes three people to operate the tea-cutter. Furthermore, its standard collection bag has proved less than ideal for lavender, and Wendy has had to introduce cunning modifications to increase its efficiency. To avoid contaminating the harvest, the cutter’s blade is lubricated with lavender oil from the previous season.
The harvest is packed in woolsacks and taken to a distillery housed in the farm’s former woolshed. Immediate distillation of the flower heads is essential to ensure consistency of product.
The farm came with its own still and boiler, purchased by the previous owner, Liz Tyler. The boiler is gas-fired and takes about an hour to reach optimum temperature. Before the flower heads are put into the still, the system is flushed for an hour to get rid of any unwanted residues. The flowers go into perforated pots, each of which holds about 100 kilograms. Each filled pot is hoisted in turn into the retort, which is then sealed. Steam is passed through the lavender mass and the essential oils extracted, the combined oil vapour and steam being condensed in a conventional, water-jacketed condenser. The length of time taken to process each batch depends on the amount of moisture in or on the plants at the time of harvest, which also impacts on the amount of oil obtained per pot.
The output from the condenser is collected in a stainless carboy. The oil rises to the surface and is decanted via a side tap into a glass separating funnel, where entrained water is removed. The water condensate itself contains a fair amount of oil residue and thus has a pleasant fragrance. It can be used in steam irons, as a room spray or as an additive for baths.
The distillation process runs more or less continuously. On a good day a new pot of flowers can be cycled through the retort every 30 minutes. The steaming waste is removed and used to mulch weedy areas around fence lines on the farm. The water in the condenser jacket becomes heated in the course of doing its job and is recycled through the boiler to conserve energy.
The new oil is stored in a cool, dark place. It is best left for 12 months to settle and mature, just like wine. Each season’s batch is tested by Crop & Food Research to ensure such important constituents as linalool, linalyl acetate, limonene, 1,8-cineole, camphor, and terpineol are at optimum levels.
Two different kinds of lavender are grown on the farm, each with its own distinct oil: Grosso and Pacific Blue. Pacific Blue is a low-yield New Zealand variety. In general, Grosso yields 2–3 litres per pot of flower heads, which corresponds to some 4–6 litres per hectare harvested. Pacific Blue yields only a third to a half of this amount. These two varieties are the main types grown for oil in New Zealand. Others are grown for dried bunches, potpourri and lavender bags, but at Taupo Lavender Farm it’s mainly oil production, with a little honey on the side.
Richard is quite pragmatic about their results to date, admitting, “We have learnt each year.” Their education was broadened by a trip in July 2006 to France, where they picked up some new tricks which “We tried this past season but in the end didn’t prove very interesting. We need to set up some proper experiments next year and see how it goes.”
With their oil supply assured, Wendy decided to develop their own range of products. Organic lavender-oil farming in New Zealand is time- and labour-intensive, and it is essential to add value to the primary product to make the operation economically viable. Standard oil can be sold in small 15 millilitre vials at a top price of about $600 per litre. Bulk oil, however, sells for markedly less. Roman lavender farmers used to encourage the notion that asps, a type of venomous snake, lurked in lavender bushes, making lavender cultivation an ostensibly hazardous occupation that justified high product prices.
It took Wendy six to eight months following the first harvest to create a marketable range of products she was satisfied with. Team Taupo, she says, is fortunate. “Between us we have five daughters, and you kinda got your own test bed there. If they don’t like something, they tell you!”
Taupo Lavender Farm now sells a range of hand and body lotions and creams, soaps, body washes, shampoos and conditioners, lip balm, body massage waxes, essential massage oil, body sugar scrubs, bath salts and bath melts. Wendy also produces specific product lines on demand. One uses another of New Zealand’s essential organic oils: True Blue, a tea-tree oil from Westport.
Seeing the vast numbers of bees attracted by the lavender flowers, in their second season on the farm Richard and Wendy put out nine hives to gather lavender honey as a by-product of their principal operation. It filled some 1500 jars of 300 g each. Initially these proved slow sellers, then the market boomed and all was set fair for hives and honey to become major products of Taupo Lavender Farm until the varroa bee mite put a crimp in these plans.
Should lavender honey ever become a regular product, Wendy is adamant on one point. “If we’re going to have bees here full time, then Richard can get his own suit and do some of this beekeeping. I had a bad experience and had to go and get an injection as I got stung so many times.”
Typically, lavender plants last 10–15 years. Now that everything is running smoothly and the lavender-oil market looks set to grow, a long-term replacement plan has been put into action, with 4000 new plants going into the ground annually.
Wendy and Richard do have one specific problem: rabbits damage many of their plants. Some of the local lads come up for regular bunny hunts but they barely manage to dent the burgeoning population.
With lavender plants occupying only 30 of the farm’s 210 hectares, there’s plenty of space for Richard’s horses. Wendy and Richard have boundless energy and plan to convert an unused portion of the woolshed into a licensed café. Lavender coffee, anyone?