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The lavender man

By on August 29, 2017 in Articles with 0 Comments

Story and photos

by Jaana Hatton

I first met Joseph Downs at Pybus Farmers Market in early July. His tall frame, stooping to get in and out of his display booth, caught my eye. Then I glanced at his products more closely: lavender.

Big men who look like loggers aren’t what one usually connects with such a gentle substance, and I was intrigued.

Joseph invited me to visit his lavender farm in East Wenatchee, an open two acres of sandy loam soil, which is perfect for growing the dry-loving herb. I had to drive through orchards and along gravel paths, convinced that once again the GPS had tricked me, but his purple-colored mailbox was a welcome beacon of finally having arrived.

While I was waiting for Joseph to get ready for the interview, I studied a large grouping of lavender starts, still in their pots and with name tags. I was amazed to find 10 variants, such as lavender melissa lilac, lavender hidcote pink, and lavender blue mountain white.

“There are 175 variants of lavender,” Joseph said. “I grow 40. One half of them are for culinary use and the other half is for health and beauty products.”

The different kinds of lavender have their specific qualities as far as stem length, bloom and scent. Yes, lavender has variations in its fragrance. I got proof of it by rubbing a few leaves of different plants against my palm and then smelling the released aroma.

The longer stemmed plants are practical for crafts while some others are perfect for cooking.

“I harvest them when they are at 50 percent bloom,” Joseph said. “Most people start cutting during the third year, but I’m comfortable utilizing my second year plants.”

Joseph hasn’t always been a lavender farmer or in agriculture at all. Instead, he was a professional basketball player from college onwards, which was almost 30 years ago. He graduated from the College of Idaho with a degree in sociology and psychology, qualifying him to teach.

He was first recruited to play in Peru for two seasons. Before he left that South American country, he made a point of climbing the mountain of Machu Picchu — yes, actually climbing, not taking any transportation up to the nearly 8,000 feet of elevation.

Initially he was going to hop on a bus as he was carrying a backpack full of souvenirs, but the one-hour wait was too long for Joseph’s patience. So he climbed, straight up with no switch-backs. The souvenirs got the special touch of the mountain before they arrived in the United States to be distributed to family members.

Joseph left Peru because his agent found a basketball player/teacher position for Joseph in Tasmania. It became his home for the next 23 years. He came back to the Wenatchee area to be with family and aging parents. Spending time with relatives helped his readjustment to the American life.

After seeing a friend’s greenhouses, Joseph realized the potential of agriculture in our area. In July 2015 he bought the East Wenatchee location especially for lavender farming. He put in the first plants in April 2016. There are no basketball hoops to be seen on the property.

Because Joseph’s business, The Lavender Boutique, grows, harvests, distills, makes and sells the products there aren’t enough hours in the day.

It is the same determination that pushed him to climb Machu Picchu that now keeps him going with the lavender endeavor. There is weeding, watering, cutting and an ongoing rotation of chores to keep up with.

Joseph rarely has time to sit and smell the lavender, other than for product checking. Thankfully the plant is pest resistant, whether it’s bugs or deer. The biggest nuisance are the weeds, but even that gets easier after a few years of rigorous plugging.

Joseph went to college to become a teacher, and he seems to be continuing on that path. He enjoys educating people in the many uses of the herb and even in how to grow it.

“Feedback from customers is helpful. I like to know that they have enjoyed our products, or if there is something to improve,” Joseph said.

Besides attending farmers markets for the people-connection, he keeps the farm open for visitors.

“I love to have people stop by. Last year we had a Harvest Festival and Christmas Party here, and we will do it again.”

His plan is to use the farm for agritourism and to offer workshops and cooking demos. He isn’t afraid to let people loose on the fields to pick their own stems, either.

“Lavender is fairly easy to grow if the soil conditions are right. There has to be good drainage,” Joseph said. “As to which variety to plant, it all depends on the intended use. Is it for cooking, oils or for landscaping?”

Joseph has spent more hours on research than he can count.

“My biggest surprise has been how versatile lavender is. Initially I thought I would be making oils and creams and that’s about it.”

He has since discovered it is great for culinary uses, crafts and as an addition to honey and lemonade, for example.

Recently someone asked Joseph if he knows how to make a furniture polish with beeswax and lavender.

“I’m willing to look into it. I’m still learning,” he said.

After visiting his farm, I came home with a complimentary bouquet of freshly harvested lavender. It has now been dried and put into little sachets. It’s amazing how delightful the scent from a handful of dry purple petals can be.

For more information on Joseph’s farm and products, go to www.thelavenderboutique.net.

Jaana Hatton is a Wenatchee freelance writer. She loves all things outdoors and natural. Before moving to Wenatchee three years ago, Jaana lived in Anacortes (two hours north of Seattle) and successfully grew lavender on her property.

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