Distilling oil from lavender or drying buds in his greenhouse is more like an aromatherapy session than a tiresome task for Mike Sullivan.
“The scent is fantastic,” said Sullivan, explaining the steam distillation process he uses to extract the fragrant oil at Longview Lavender Farm on the northwest shore of Flathead Lake near Somers.
“It’s a lot like steaming vegetables and takes about 20 pounds of flowers to produce an ounce of oil,” said Sullivan, 77, past chairman of the education and research committee of the U.S. Lavender Growers Association and a founding member of the Lavender Northwest, a regional consortium of lavender farmers. “We’re committed to growing, harvesting, and distilling the finest essential oil for all lavender uses.”
Throughout the summer, he offers tours.
“We have quite a few members of senior centers coming out to walk through the fields,” he said. “They want to relax and learn about lavender and the distillation process.”
Sullivan and his family hope their lessons about lavender and its medicinal and culinary uses linger long after visitors leave the five-acre farm. After strolling through fragrant fields with 8,000 plants, visitors take with them not only memories but also handcrafted health products from their store along with plants and advice about growing lavender.
“Lavender has really taken hold in the U.S. during the past decade,” Sullivan said, estimating there are 1,000 lavender growers nationwide promoting its positive attributes.
For centuries worldwide, lavender has been prized for cooking, floral arrangements and as an ingredient in health and beauty products, and even as an insect repellant. Studies suggest lavender benefits those with depression, insomnia, and anxiety, and that its oil has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. After harvest, it preserves naturally, stores easily, and can be sold year-round. The aroma in a dried bouquet can be refreshed by spritzing it with water mixed with a little rubbing alcohol.
With Longview Lavender about 30 miles from Glacier National Park, the Sullivans’ crop has reached countless people nationwide and worldwide.
“We’ve had people on tour buses come from all over the world and every state except Vermont,” Sullivan said, pointing to a map inside the farm’s store, where visitors have placed stick pins to show their home states and countries. “About 75 percent of our visitors are park tourists. The other 25 percent are locals who pick bundles or drop by the store.”
Strolling through fields with visitors, Sullivan estimates about 60 percent of the farm’s plants are distilled and sold as oil or made into health and beauty products.
A Fragrant Mission
Mike and his family established the enterprise in 2004 when he was searching for a niche crop to grow upon returning to Montana. He had already run a cherry orchard near Woods Bay in the 1970s and then moved to California to grow roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, and other ornamental flowers in greenhouses. Eventually, Montana tugged him back home.
Sullivan thought lavender would be ideal in northwestern Montana and could be grown without greenhouses. Although lavender originated in the Mediterranean, it is robust enough to thrive in cold climates. A pest-resistant perennial shrub, it requires minimal watering and fertilization. It thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. Each plant lives for about 10 years.
There are 45 species to choose from with more than 400 varieties. Sullivan chose Hidcote, Grosso, Phenomenal and Super varieties for their hardiness in a cold climate and suitability to soil type, wind, and air temperatures. To ensure his lavender’s longevity, he covers plants with a freeze cloth in the fall and removes it in April.
“We keep it in place with anchor pins. It’s labor intensive to put down and remove and takes about a week of eight-hour days.”
After the farm closes to the public after Labor Day, the Sullivans will shape the lavender into mounds, anticipating future robust growth. In October, the freeze cloth will go back on and be staked in place to ensure yet another sensational season of lavender scents. MSN