As the heat of the day rises, the oil in Dawn and Steve McCreery’s lavender plants rises too, up into the flowers, letting off a beautiful aroma and making the blossoms ripe for cutting.
However, after growing lavender on their Rome City property since 2009, this summer might be their last.
“We lost most of the crop last year,” Dawn McCreery said, estimating it at 99% and the summer’s complete harvest.
“It’s hard to have a lavender farm without lavender,” she said.
She didn’t want to continue this summer, but “Steve wasn’t ready to throw in the towel,” she said. The couple have lived on the property since 1978 and started the lavender farm as a way to bring supplemental income.
The couple replaced the plants and had to wait until this May to see “the devastation” of those that didn’t survive to break dormancy.
“Lavender likes it hot and dry,” she said, which might make Indiana a strange home for the perennial flowering plant. However, winter’s snow serves as insulation. The area hasn’t gotten that the last couple of years, and the roots get wet and rot despite the black plastic nestled up against the plants.
The McCreerys are prime examples of the type of people getting into farming lavender, said Wynne Wright, an associate professor in sociology and community sustainability at Michigan State University, who also has a lavender farm.
“Lavender has exploded in the last five years,” she said.
It’s part of the general explosion in agriculture in the last 10-20 years, as more people want to farm or garden, but in a sustainable way, she said.
Lavender appeals to older growers and is ideal for agritourism. Great Lakes Lavender Growers formed in 2014 to provide resources, because the crop is so new. No lavender expert exists in the U.S. Ontario has invested in an expert after tobacco farmers were encouraged to move to other crops, including lavender.
The Great Lakes group now has 100 members, but Wright knows there are many more lavender growers out there.
“Five years ago we have five in Michigan; now there are 50,” she said.
McCreery prefers English lavender, which can tolerate colder temperatures to 20 below 0. The couple started an experimental bed in the shape of a cross, what Steve calls his Celtic cross. McCreery picks a stalk of buds, showing how an opened flower means it’s ready. The hotter the weather, the more oil that comes up into the flowers, she said. However, rain came the night before, so the pickings have been slim.
As a few bees buzz around the flowers, McCreery notes, “We’ve seen the insect population diminishing. It used to be I’d have a plant covered with bees. I’d have to shoo them to harvest.
What she collects in bundles is pure profit, but the bottles for things like their line of body care products come with costs. Their small shop has lavender-themed serving ware, and lavender made for culinary and tea use, books on growing it and some of Steve’s woodworking items including cutting boards.
McCreery hadn’t even smelled lavender before she decided to start growing it after seeing people in New York and Pennsylvania were managing it.
“When I smelled lavender, I was hooked,” she said. It came after a longtime aversion to flowers, with her earliest memories associated with the flowers at her mother’s funeral. She put in nearly 100 plants in the cross shape because “I needed a pattern.” She got a bushel basket from her first harvest. They added to the fields, now covering about 3 acres of their property.
Despite the disaster of last year, when she canceled tours, it turned out to be her best year.
“I think it was community support,” she said. “We support one another.”
For now, she plans to stay open through the end of August.
“After that, watch Facebook for future activities,” she said.