Q & A
Lavender Farming in Montana
Answered by: Richard Alan Miller
Question from: Roxana McClelland
Posted on: November 26, 2005

I am living in Central Montana and am considering starting a small lavender farm around 5 acres. I am having trouble finding information on the wholesale value of 5 acres of lavender. What would you suggest we start with and how hard is it to market this product in a wholesale manner. Is there a market for dried flowers, and bundles or is the market primarily oils.

I haven’t written about lavender in more than one year. I have written extensively on it, and will include some of those earlier comments for reference, if you do choose to grow it. A good friend grew 42 acres down on the Klamath River about 15 years ago. He was from Holland, and knew the floral trade.

With what I know now, I wouldn’t recommend it as a cash crop. It is fun to grow, and makes wonderful topiaries. Lavender is a hard one to complete as a cash crop. The French have really got their systems down. We simple could not make the costs competitive in the oil business (extraction). We ended up selling it for dried flower stems.

The only 7 lavender farms currently successful in the US are bed-and-breakfast situations. The lavender is for people to muse and they sell cottage industries around them. I really like it because you can topiary it (somewhat) like rosemary.

There are a number of lavenders, including special cultivars and hybrids. Selecting the right one often can niche you into a market, where it is grown for specific end uses. The following is several paragraphs from my book (unpublished) on lavender (Small Farm Series). For other books, see www.herbfarminfo.com. My website is www.nwbotanicals.org, and has a number of useful articles on resources and marketing. Go to www.nwbotanicals.org/oak/altagri/a_a_index.html

Lavender is fun to grow, but has serious harvesting considerations. It likes to grow on hostile soils with good slant/drainage (14%) -- perfect for that back 14 acres now useless for even cattle. However, what do you plan to market? The flower petal is the largest market, now supplied by France (for the last 200 years). Their price landed? $4.00/lb. These are used in formulas and potpourri mixes.

Stripping the petal off the spike is labor intensive, and usually does not show profits when done by hand. This means you will also need to invent a petal stripper as part of the crop development program. The French do it by drying it on spikes, and then jumping on it (like grapes). This then requires serious sifting and scalping of the stem pieces. Or they make oil for the cosmetic industry (via steam distillation).

Most domestic growers attempt to harvest and then sell dried spikes (with flower petals) to the floral trade (by the "bunch" or "hand"). Now you have a controlled Dutch system, again leaving minimal profit margins. The only way I’ve seen domestic growers make it profitable is by using it in a cottage industry (on site) program, where it is an essential part of the "package."

I would pass on growing lavender for commercial sales. It is very nice to grow in and around other crops. Even using is as a companion plant sill help control specific insects. I could think of a number of crops that would be far more lucrative.

One of the best crops from Montana is Echinacea angustifolia (certified organic). This is one of the very few herbs that is site-specific. It does not matter who grew it, but where it was grown. I have written a book on its cultivation and marketing, at www.herbfarminfo.com. While Canada grows larger quantities than we do, the North Dakota and Eastern Montana crops are considered the best in the world.

There are a series of other herbs and spices that might be worth your study. They include bear grass (the best in the world comes from Montana), and numerous other natives, like anise and fennel. Of course, most of the diversified farmers grow mint. There is a serious need for certified organic peppermint and spearmint leaf. I also have some friends growing chamomile for a cottage industry ("A Taste of Montana"). A network is available for new Montana farmers.

Sorry I can’t be more positive regarding lavender. If you want to write me, I can develop a farm plan for your consideration. I’ve done some business in Montana and think you have a wonderful place to live. What town are you near? How else can I help you?

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