Suzie Dick, a ballet teacher and silk painter talks about her love of lavender and how it led her and her husband Ian from New Zealand, a former Royal Air Force Pilot and Red Arrows Leader, to set up Lherm lavender farm in Lot, south west France….
In 2003, my husband (who originally comes from Christchurch in New Zealand) and I moved to live permanently in the beautiful Lot Valley, near Cahors, south west France. We have always loved lavender (who doesn’t) and that same year, whilst on holiday in New Zealand, we made a chance visit to the Takamatua Lavender Farm near Akaroa.
We noticed that Takamatua had a sloping field just like ours back in France – with sunflowers, walnuts and the same climate. We had often thought about what to put in our unused field and realised we could have found the answer. The next day, we visited the “don” of lavender in New Zealand – Virginia McNaughton. By pure luck the Kew Gardens lavender expert Susyn Andrews happened to be there having arrived from England the night before. We explained that we wanted to grow lavender in France and she put us in touch with Simon Charlesworth, one of the holders of the English National Lavender Collection at Downderry Nursery in Kent. Simon suggested we grow lavender plants Maillette and Grosso for oil and just two weeks later, after returning to France, we were the proud owners of 400 plants from Kent.
Our first task was to till the land which had not been touched for at least 35 years! We learnt from a neighbour that it had last been ploughed with two yoked oxen, and the original plough was still there under the walnut trees. Over the last 200 or so years, all the stones, which had come to the surface, had been carried by hand in baskets to the top of the hill by the young and old. At least, that was one job they saved us.
We discovered that all the surrounding land was originally put to vines, but Phylloxera wiped them out at the end of the 19th Century as did the crippling frost of 1956, it was only during the last 50 years that wine began making a comeback. To our great surprise, we discovered that during those difficult years lavender became a popular crop (20% of France’s total lavender production came from the Lot), but now lavender has almost disappeared, and only one of the original lavender farms is still working in the traditional way.
Our first plants were planted during May 2003 – just as the worst heat-wave the Lot Valley has ever experienced began. We had a complete water-hose ban from May through to October, but our plants survived. They even made it through the next winter with unseasonable temperatures of -12°C and the wild boar which would try to dig up the field overnight!
Now we have 2,500 plants grown for their oil. Half are Lavandula Angustifolia and half are Lavandula Intermedia varieties. Our favourite is the Maillette. We are the proud owners of a still from California and a Japanese tea-plucking machine adapted in New Zealand for harvesting lavender. We now have over 25 different varieties and an annematic sundial over which there have been many heated discussions! We have restored a lovely old stone-built farmhouse (built in 1762), and our time is spent caring for our lavender fields, maintaining our property and looking after holiday guests who come from all over the world to stay in our beautiful, holiday cottage. They love being surrounded by lavender.
Sourcing our lavender still was an adventure in itself, we had help from lavender experts in the UK, Jersey and San Diego, California – as you can imagine, it’s not the sort of equipment you find readily.
Our “Essential Oils Steam Extraction Apparatus” was sent from California to Toulouse airport where French customs waved it through without even opening the crate. Ian had prepared in advance answers – in French – about how the still could not be used to distil alcohol, which is still very taboo in Europe – we were certain that someone would ask us. Ever since then “Can you use it to make booze?” is almost always the first question anybody – including our Mayor – jokingly asks Ian when they see the still.
We had our first harvest in 2005, as (bad) luck would have it, we finished the day before the harvester arrived from New Zealand; so it was all done by hand with a sickle, sitting on a stool.
The still was a joy for Ian to operate – all those fumes! Our first bottle of “Lavande de Lherm” pure essential lavender oil was presented to the Mayor of Lherm, who wanted to know if it was good to drink!
Since then, we have learnt everything we could about lavender. We have been amazed that people are so willing to share their knowledge and hard-fought secrets with a complete newcomer and, in turn, we look forward to sharing our experiences with the lavender fraternity. We have developed a range of lavender products, from award winning essential oils and we absolutely love our Lavender Life in the Lot.