Living the Dream: I Started a Lavender Farm in Oregon
Growing lavender on a beautiful island in Oregon sounds like a dream come true, right? Here's what it took to make it a reality.
Welcome to Living the Dream, a new Livability.com series about people who made their big dreams a reality — and the places and communities that made it possible. Do you know someone who’s carved out a unique lifestyle or business in a small town or small to mid-sized city? We’re always looking for great stories. Email our editor for a chance to be featured!
Today, we’re kicking things off with an interview with Julie Cleveland, owner of Sauvie Island Lavender Farm, located on a picturesque island on the border of Oregon and Washington.
Name: Julie Cleveland
Location: Sauvie Island (near Portland, OR)
Occupation: Lavender Grower, Sauvie Island Lavender Farm
When did you start your lavender farm, and what were you doing before this?
I physically planted the lavender farm in 2006, but I spent about three years prior researching and planning the farm. Before becoming a lavender grower, I wore many hats. I managed a marina, published a local community newspaper and worked as a land use planning consultant.
Was it always a dream of yours to open a lavender farm?
Not at all. I was looking for an opportunity to contribute to the family income while allowing me to stay at home with the kids. I read an article in a national magazine about a woman who became a lavender grower and I was hooked.
How did you go about making this dream a reality?
The first thing I did was share my idea with my husband and we both agreed to use the profits from a property sale to start a lavender farm. Next I researched lavender farm businesses — everything from growing to value-added products. That was over 15 years ago. Back then there were no lavender grower associations like there are now and information was limited. Finally, we found property that would work as a lavender farm.
A couple of years later, we leased additional property and expanded the farm. I also joined Tri-County Farm Fresh Association. It is a group of 70+ farmers from three counties whose focus is promoting and marketing members’ farms to the region.
To be honest, the dream is ever evolving. When I started, I never dreamed of selling lavender online. Now that is quickly approaching becoming half of our business. I also never thought my reality would include mentoring others who say I am living their dream and ask for help on how to achieve it. I am currently developing a course that will provide folks everything they need know to grow their own successful lavender farm. I can’t wait to see what I dream up next!
Why did you choose to base your business in Oregon, and how does your location affect your business?
My husband and I are Oregonians, born and raised. We never considered moving out of state. This is what we know and who we are. We chose our farm location based on one overriding factor: we did not want our children to have to change schools. The next factor we looked at was finding property with a family home that had the right soil type for a successful lavender farm. The third factor we had to consider was our budget.
Once we decided we wanted to live on Sauvie Island, the rest just fell into place. We found out about a property from another mom at the kids’ school and we were able to snap it up before it went on the market.
Sauvie Island is a tourist destination. When we bought our property in 2005, the island received around 1.5 million visitors a year to hunt, fish, birdwatch, bike ride, sunbathe, swim, and visit farms for produce, flowers and Christmas trees. Because of our location, it was easy to tap into that visitor base and get folks to stop by to u-pick lavender.
Do you feel supported by your local community?
Absolutely. We already had great relationships with our neighbors who operated larger produce farms and farm markets on Sauvie Island. They were very kind in promoting our farm when we first started and encouraging their customers to visit us. They also offered us the ability to sell our value-added lavender products at their farms. We all help each other out. There was a time when a neighboring farm did not have enough cash on hand at the end of the day to make payroll so I was able to help them out until they could get to the bank the next day. When my husband, who is also my farmhand, had a significant health issue, it was our farm community who stepped up and helped with the farm chores until he got back on his feet.
What does a typical work day looks like for you?
It depends on the season. In May, I start opening up the farm on weekends for lavender plant sales and to sell any remaining dried lavender bundles from the previous season.
By June we are in full-swing lavender mode. Typically this means 10-12 hour work days seven days a week that are a combination of working in the lavender field (mowing, weeding, etc.), making lavender products, greeting farm visitors and answering their questions about lavender and the farm, implementing social media marketing, and filling online lavender orders.
In July, we do everything that we did in June plus set up the drying sheds and hire and manage a harvest crew for a week or two. About two weeks after harvest we host a party for friends and family to help us strip around 2000 dried bundles of lavender that we use to fill sachet bags.
By the end of August, the u-pick lavender is pretty much picked out for the season, so this is the time I start shifting my attention more towards my online lavender farm stores (we have three) and creating a new product line for the Christmas season. I tend to release two new product lines a year — one in November, and one in March. By having an online farm sales component, we are able to bring in farm income year round. We receive orders for our value-added lavender products just about every day from all across the country. The most popular items we sell are our jumbo dried lavender bouquets and our lavender and curly willow brooms.
In September we trim the lavender plants before the first frost.
October through May we fill online orders and work on product line development and launches. I work on honing my internet marketing skills to drive traffic to my online shops and I am currently developing a couple of online courses for folks interested in 1) growing lavender for fun or profit, 2) cooking/baking with culinary lavender. Both will be available in 2018.
Is there anything about the reality of your work that would surprise people?
I think folks would be surprised by how much work is involved to grow our crop for customers. I can wholeheartedly say that about any farm — no matter what the crop is.
Also, I can’t smell lavender anymore.
What do you wish you’d known before you started?
I wish I known the importance of creating, nurturing, and maintaining an email list of customers from day one. I was not very consistent at this for the first few years and I gave up on it completely when Facebook and Twitter came about. Silly me, I thought sending emails was so old-school. Boy, was I wrong. If you are going to have customers, the foundation of your marketing plan must be an email list. I have since learned that social media marketing is just one part of the picture and is a tool for growing my email list, but not the end all be all.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
It is not important to do everything perfectly. Always answer the phone and give superior customer service. A few years ago, I was interviewed for a national publication for an article they were writing about culinary lavender. I was not the first lavender farm they called, but I was the first one to answer the phone.
What advice would you give to someone else who’s trying to make their big dream a reality?
Chip away at it. Try not to get overwhelmed. Do your research. Don’t be afraid to interview people who are living your dream to get inspiration, motivation and guidance. Make yourself accountable by keeping a calendar of tasks to accomplish and look at it daily. Be flexible. Find other likeminded people to help support and guide you. Don’t let that little voice creep into your head whispering self-doubt and deflating your confidence. You got this.
[All photos courtesy Julie Cleveland]
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