meet the farmer
Local family finds peace at Lavender Ridge.
WRITTEN BY SUSIE SUTPHIN
PHOTOS COURTESY OF LAVENDER RIDGE
Every time I turn onto Mayberry Avenue off of West Fourth Street in Reno, I gaze at the lavender fields next to the charming, old farmhouse on the corner. Even from far away, the lavender's medicinal properties help me relax and take a deep breath as I go about my day. When I finally slowed down and visited the farm, I discovered another beautiful patch in our community quilt.
Kristy and Mike Harris settled on Lavender Ridge in 1994, making a home for themselves and their two boys, Ryan and Cameron. In 1999, a family trip to New Zealand changed their homestead forever. What seemed like an innocuous tour of a lavender field ended up leaving a lasting impression on Kristy and Mike.
Mike was in the construction business for 38 years and had been asking himself, "What do I want to do when I retire?"
Most people start to think about what they are not going to do. But the Harrises knew they wanted to keep busy. And the more they learned about lavender, the more their affinity grew and consequently convinced them of their future. They immersed themselves in education, attending the Sequim Lavender Festival in Sequim, Wash., and returning to New Zealand in 2003 for training. By the summer of 2003, they had planted their first starters and by 2004, they were selling their first lavender products at local farmers' markets. Mike dusted off his horticulture degree and they both pulled upon their entrepreneurial spirits to open Lavender Ridge in 2005.
"Distillation equipment is expensive," says Mike, adding that the distiller is needed to extract oil from the plant.
So, as if in a scene from the show Junkyard Wars, Mike assembled his first distiller from old, stainless-steel oxygen tanks. After their first harvest, Mike intrepidly turned on the distiller. With a rattle and a rumble, out came lavender oil.
"It's working! It's working!" Mike yelled up to the house for Kristy to come see.
"We were dancing in the driveway, literally!" Kristy says. "We were overjoyed!"
From that moment, they were official lavender farmers.
High and Mighty
There are only a handful of high-altitude lavender farmers in the world, with the Harrises' being among those. And lavender is more difficult to grow at elevation. In order to produce a profitable yield, farmers typically have to grow more plants.
At altitude, lavender plants get 20 percent more ultraviolet light than typical sea-level plants. To protect itself, the lavender plant makes high-quality oil. Incidentally, higher quality oil has more esters. Esters are what give lavender its beneficial properties. And in a sniff test with the competition, I was convinced. You truly can tell the difference.
More than 200 known lavender types exist, and Kristy and Mike grow 14 varieties on their farm. Grosso lavender is one of their main varieties. It grows exceptionally well in Northern Nevada and is used for making essential oils, soaps, and candles. But their prize jewel is Royal Velvet. It is visually striking and the buds look like crushed velvet, hence the name. Its sweet flavor makes it an excellent culinary herb. So Lavender Ridge makes its own homemade teas, ice creams, shortbreads, as well as meat and fish rubs with that variety.
Lavender is a drought-tolerant, herbaceous perennial making it perfectly suited for the dry climate, and less than perfect soil, of Northern Nevada. The best part is lavender has no pests, thus no need for pesticides. In fact, lavender is an excellent insect repellent. Bees, however, love lavender. And Mike is a beekeeper and makes lavender honey.
Over the past seven years, the Harrises have found ways to diversify their business in order to not solely depend on lavender oil. They have a robust gift shop, more than 60 lavender-inspired products, and events throughout the summer, including happy hours in their shaded courtyard. In addition, they converted Mike's work shed into a 130-person, banquet facility that cascades out onto a patio with views of lush rows of lavender, the Truckee River, and the mountains.
Kristy and Mike make a great team. Kristy runs the front of the house, merchandising the store and managing the business. Most often, you'll find Mike crafting new products and compounding recipes in his basement studio. His original product, Mike's Magic Salve, still is their best seller. But they have expanded to include products in four categories: bath and body, aromatherapy, culinary, and kitchen.
"When we first started, we thought we would just do oil," Kristy says. "But then we realized all the different products we could make."
They have found ways to even reclaim the lavender-laden water produced during the distillation process. It's called hydrosol and is a great multi-purpose housecleaning product as well as a treatment for insect bites. One visit to Lavender Ridge and you quickly realize that lavender has many more uses beyond helping you relax.
Susie Sutphin lives in Truckee, Calif., where she dreams big about building a Tahoe food system with regional food producers. Learn more about her and ideas on sustainability by visiting her blog at www.Foodchronicles.net.
7450 W. Fourth St., Reno (two miles west of South McCarran Boulevard)
HOT SPICED LAVENDER RED CABBAGE SLAW
(courtesy of The Lavender Cookbook by Sharon Shipley)
½ pound bacon, thick-sliced and diced
1 cup yellow onion, finely diced
1 tablespoons dried culinary lavender buds, finely ground in a spice grinder
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
¼ cup chicken broth
8 cups red cabbage, thinly shredded
2 green apples, peeled, cored, and shredded
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Pinch sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fry bacon in large skillet over medium heat until crisp. Pour off all but ¼ cup of the drippings. Add onion, lavender, caraway seeds, and mustard seeds to skillet. Cook 5 minutes or until onion softens. Whisk in flour and cook 1 to 2 minutes to remove starchy taste of flour.
Stir in vinegar, sugar, and broth. Season with salt and pepper. Add cabbage and apples. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, tossing cabbage with tongs to wilt it. Stir in parsley just before serving.
LAVENDER ORANGE SCONES
(courtesy of Kristy Harris who modified it from Barefoot Contessa's At Home, p. 214)
4 cups all-purpose flour plus another ¼ cup
¼ cup granulated sugar plus extra for sprinkling
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons orange zest, grated (2 oranges)
¾ cup butter, cold, unsalted, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons culinary lavender, ground
1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water for egg wash
½ cup confectioners' sugar plus 2 tablespoons
4 teaspoon freshly squeezed orange juice
Preheat oven to 400° F. Line sheet pan with parchment paper. In bowl of electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix 4 cups of flour, ¼ cup granulated sugar, baking powder, salt, and orange zest. Add cold butter and mix at lowest speed until butter is size of peas. Combine eggs and heavy cream and, with mixer on low speed, slowly add to flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended. The dough will look lumpy! Combine culinary lavender and ¼ cup of flour, add to dough and mix on low speed until blended.
Dump dough onto a well-floured board and knead into a ball. Flour your hands and a rolling pin and roll dough just under 1-inch thick. You should see small bites of butter in dough. Keep moving dough on floured board so it doesn't stick. Flour a 3-inch round plain or fluted cutter and cut circles of dough. Place scones on prepared sheet pan. Collect scraps neatly, roll them out, and cut more circles.
Brush tops of scones with egg wash, sprinkle with granulated sugar, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until tops are browned and insides are fully baked. Scones will be firm to the touch. Allow scones to cool for 15 minutes and then whisk together confectioner's sugar and orange juice and drizzle over scones.