Pick-Your-Own Lavender Farm and Catnip Marketing I
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Sue
Posted on: August 9, 2000

I read with interest the many questions and responses on lavender in the Q&A section.

I have a couple of questions which I think have not been asked previously. If the market is mostly dominated by lavender from France, is this in reference to the French type lavender or English? I understand that France grows both types. Also, when speaking to some small cottage industries supplying lavender products here in Ontario they mention that they use French lavender imported from France (as if this is the best type). If in fact this is true is this the more pleasant fragrance or is this a perception?

Your question is an excellent one because there is indeed an ambiguity about what exactly is referred by "French lavender". There are in fact several very different lavenders and their products that can be called "French lavender".

The problem is that the word "French" is used in several senses. It can refer simply to the country of origin, i.e., lavender grown in France regardless of the specific variety of lavender, or it can be used to refer to specific varieties of lavender that are known conventionally as "French lavender" regardless of where it might be grown.

Added to mix of confusion is the fact that herb specialists, authors, and purveyors of lavender plants have tried to attach common names to the different species of Lavandula. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with what is known as "French lavender" and what is known as "Spanish lavender". Some authors and herb plant growers say Lavandula dentata is "French lavender", while others, including Richters, say it is "Spanish lavender". Meanwhile, L. stoechas is listed as "Spanish lavender" while Richters and others use "French lavender" to refer to this species.

In any case, neither L. dentata nor L.stoechas, are important to the lavender trade. Neither possesses the clean fragrance we associate with lavender, both having a pine and camphor overtone that makes them unsuitable for oil production.

You are correct, France grows two types of lavender commercially. By far the most important type is what is known as the "lavandins" which are hybrids of two species, L. angustifolia and L. latifolia. The best known cultivar is ‘Grosso’, but there are others such as ‘Provence’ and ‘Super’. The lavandins are knwon for their disease resistance and their high oil yield, but the oil is considered inferior to the L. angustifolia varieties, but not by much. Lavandin oils contain a hint of camphor and other components which derive very likely from their L. latifolia parentage, the camphorous spike lavender. The lavandins have been assigned the botanical name, L. x intermedia, where the "x" denotes its hybrid origin.

The other type grown in France is L. angustifolia. This is widely known horticulturally as "English lavender", and it comes in many cultivars such as ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’, ‘Lady’, and ‘Twickle Purple’. The French grumble that England appropriated original L. angustifolia stock from France and renamed it "English lavender". Whatever the provenance of the L. angustifolia, there is no question that the finest and cleanest oils come from varieties of this species. The trouble is that oil yields and other cropping characteristics put English lavenders at a disadvantage compared to the higher yielding and more disease resistant lavandin types, and that is why the bulk of the French industry overall is dominated by the varieties of the latter. In England, however, the L. angustifolia varieties dominate.

There is no doubt that the cachet associated with anything from France is marketing point in North America. So, it is not surprising that Ontario importers will claim that their "French" material is superior. What exactly this material is is an open question, for it could be either L. angustifolia or lavandin (L. x intermedia). If it is lavandin, whcih it very likely is if it came from France, then it will not be as clean a fragrance as what is possible from L. angustifolia varieties.

I am seriously considering preparing lavender gardens on our cottage property, an area of about 40 X 50 ft. In addition, this garden would lead to an existing secret garden (5 years old) which I designed within the framework of an old stone barn foundation.

I have experimented with English, Hidcote, Grosso and also some Royal Velvet (which I am presently propagating) with good success. The Hidcote was by far the more attractive compact plant with very intense purple colour and good yield (3rd year). I plan to create the garden to include a lavender labyrinth, and border the garden with rugosa roses and cedar as a wind break. The soil is excellent for lavender, high in lime and very stony (zone 5).

I have also experimented with some lavender products, dusting powder, soaps and bath salts.

My thoughts are to invite "pick your own lavender" during the prime blooming period of July and at the same time offer a tour of the secret garden and samplings of lavender culinary products i.e. scones etc. and provide some limited products for sale (mentioned previously).

Since this is in the Grey-Bruce region of Ontario there is a great interest in herbal products. In fact, nearby Durham has its own herb fair every year. There is already an entrepreneur who has a small lavender farm in Durham. He is represented at the fair and sells many potted lavender plants (from plugs from Richters). I will have to try to find out more about the products he sells.

The concept of a "pick-your-own" lavender farm is, we think, an excellent one, and one that is beginning to prove itself to be a highly successful one for a farm business. Michael Reicher of Purple Haze Lavender Farms in the United States talked about his amazing success story at the Herbs 2000 conference. And in the July 2000 issue of the Richters HerbLetter there is a report on another successful U.S. lavender farm.

The "pick-your-own" lavender farm comes under what is known as "agri-tourism". There is a burgeoning interest to know more about the farms from which agricultural products come from and people are flocking to farm-based events and activities. People are ready for a much more hand-on experience than simply buying their herbs at the local store. If the experience includes demonstrations, information and fun, people wll come.

In addition, I also have a huge amount of catnip that grows wild on some of the property. I have picked and dried many bunches of it...now what to do with it all? I would like to find out more of the potential of marketing this product, obviously on a small scale. Do you have any information as to who might be potential buyers within Ontario?

Catnip herb is worth between $1 to $2 (U.S.) a pound for 100 pounds and up (August 2000). Global Botanicals in Barrie is one Ontario buyer for modest amounts. Larger amounts, such as 1000 pounds, may have to go to U.S. buyers. A broker such as Richard Alan Miller in Oregon may be able to help you. You can reach Mr. Miller at inquiry@richters.com . These buyers will want a whole or cut and sifted product, so you would have to process your bunches further.

Unless you can harvest, dry and process this amount of material using machinery, you are not going to be able to make money at these prices. You could try to sell smaller amounts to wholesaler and retail stores at a higher price. The wholesale selling price is about $5 to $7 (U.S.) a pound for 25 pound quantities; but you might get half as much because the $5-$7 includes the wholesaler’s markup.

Some growers have developed successful businesses that charge higher prices. These growers are producing a very high quality product, certified organic, and usually hand-processed. This a specialty niche market, that takes time to develop, but can be very profitable.

You could also consider making valued added products with your catnip. Typically, value-added products can generate many more times the revenue than bulk herbs can. For example, small catnip packages for the pet store market are an option. We have seen some nicely packaged catnip sold this way. Much of the packaged catnip in Ontario pet stores is poor quality -- pale green or brown colour, high proportion of stems, etc. -- so there is a good opportunity to market a high quality product.

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