San Juan Island Behind the Scenes: Pelindaba Lavender Farm
I recently had the absolute pleasure to get a private tour of the production facility at the Pelindaba Lavender Farm on gorgeous San Juan Island. The farm, it’s lovely farm store and visitor’s center are one of the main tourist attractions on San Juan Island in the Summer, however the production facility on site is not open to the general public. We here at the Earthbox Inn & Spa source all of our body care products for our guest rooms from Pelindaba, because they are amazing, local, certified organic and a big plus--dispensing them in bulk cuts down on a lot of waste. Especially important on a little island. So I got to go see how all the good, purple stuff is made.
The Pelindaba Lavender Farm has grown in the last two decades from a simple, beautiful piece of property, which their owner, Stephen Robins, wanted to preserve as open space to a self-sustaining, vertically-integrated model of successfully harnessing farming, manufacturing, marketing and agritourism activities that are environmentally sound and economically viable. Today Pelindaba operates 12 stores nationwide and produces over 200 lavender products for decorative, culinary, personal care and therapeutic uses. Pelindaba employs 40+ people year-round on San Juan Island, which is economically significant for a place where year-round work is very hard to find. The farm is open all year to visitors and is a serene place to visit any time of the year. Visually, the most rewarding time to visit is during July and August, when the purple crop is in full bloom and you can not only see, smell and touch lavender, you can also hear it. There is a steady busy bee buzz all around you (don’t worry, they are calm and perfectly content with the delicious nectar and not at all interested in people).
Amelia, Pelindaba’s Director of Marketing and Sales and my “behind the scenes” escort, guided me through the same route the lavender would enter the production facility: through a large roll-up door in front. Here the purple crop can go one of three ways: drying, distilling or hydrosol, the three bases for all products made here. The raw material is then divided into culinary and non-culinary sections, since different laws govern the two.
We visited the non-culinary side first. A large, light room with big tables in the middle with product stacked high along the walls. Women face each other while putting perfect bows on little purple (handmade) packages, stickers on bottles and a sprig of lavender through a ribbon. Everything here is made by hand and in house, from research and design to manufacturing. There are days when body care products are made, some when bottles are being filled and others when ribbons and stickers are placed on the bottles. Some work is outsourced to other local crafters, like the woman who sews lovely little purple pouches.
Pelindaba integrates art from local artists into their impressive line-up, like lavender-themed ceramics. Those gems are often only available at the Gatehouse Farm Store at the Farm.
75% of all lavender products made here are made from the Grosso variety of lavender. Its essential oil gets better with age – like wine. Right now, the oils from 2014 are being processed. It takes two lavender plants to make one ounce of essential oil. A lavender plant usually produces for about 15 years and virtually nothing, no weather, no vermin, no drought, can destroy a crop.
The next step in my guided tour, gave me a peek at the culinary side of things in the huge and airy commercial kitchen. This is where lavender cookies, chutney, chocolate and coffee are made. The lavender coffee is very popular at the moment. Pelindaba sources its coffee from the local San Juan Coffee Roasting Company, who in turn source their coffee from small family farms, who grow their crop in the shade and without the harmful use of pesticides.
Pelindaba’s production has essentially doubled in the last two years, making it necessary to lease additional fields to grow lavender on San Juan as well as Orcas Island. In their off-island retail stores, large pictures of the farm tell the Pelindaba story, instilling a strong sense of place. Pelindaba’s customers range from gift-givers seeking souvenirs of their time on San Juan Island, to handcrafters to culinary adventurers.
Lavender used to be a very popular herb before WWII, especially in Europe. Sadly in England virtually all the lavender fields burned during the war. Thereafter, most of the needs that the versatile herb had previously filled, were replaced with chemicals. This is finally beginning to change! Learn some fun facts about lavender, like Why Tanners didn’t get the Plaque, here.
Returning to the tour: in the back of the large warehouse in the inventory area, the culinary and non-culinary goods come together. All orders, from individual customers ordering online to big orders to retail stores as far away as Florida, Colorado and Ashland, OR, and as near as La Connor, Bainbridge and Edmonds are put together and shipped from here. Voila!
An absolute must-do when visiting San Juan Island is to have a sunset picnic in the farm’s rolling purple fields, speckled with sitting areas and stunning sculptures. The fields are waiting for you: they are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The peaceful atmosphere, magical light and ever-distinctive smell are truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.