Gordon KnightMaking scents
Tumalo farmer smells profit in aromatic plants

By Jeff McDonald / The Bulletin

Gordon Knight may look like the typical farmer with his tanned face, squinting eyes and calm demeanor. But the lifelong farmer decided to drop the hay bales and pick up bunches of lavender flowers last summer when he planted 1,000 of the small, aromatic shrubs on a test plot at his 10-acre farm outside Tumalo.

This summer, he will plant 5,000 more lavender plants with the hope of providing the popular herb to the fragrance, specialty-food and alternative-medicine industries.

Lavender's rising demand and high retail price make it an attractive crop for Central Oregon farmers, especially because the region's high elevation compares with the popular lavender-growing region of Provence in southeastern France.

Central Oregon's farmers are looking for new crops to grow as foreign competition and disease have displaced high-income stalwarts such as garlic, potatoes and peppermint oil.

The region's dry climate and sandy soil also provide optimal conditions for the arid crop, which requires a heavy amount of capital and labor.

According to Mylen Bohle, an extension agent for Oregon State University, six farms in Central Oregon will produce lavender next year, including farms already in operation at Smith Rock, in Prineville and the Powell Butte area.

"It's still a novelty crop, but more and more small places are looking for something to do other than pasture or hay," he said. "But it's an ideal crop for this region because the higher elevation creates higher quality oil."

Knight spent the past three years researching the lavender market on the Internet, in books and by visiting places such as Sequim, Wash., known as "the lavender capital of North America." He discovered potential for the versatile crop.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I couldn't make a profit," he said.

Evidence of lavender's romantic appeal to the masses can be seen in mid-July when Sequim draws thousands of visitors to view the purple haze of lavender fields during its annual "Celebrate Lavender Festival," which coincides with the plant's harvest.

When it's in full operation, visitors to Tumalo Lavender will be able to pick from the 10 varieties grown on Knight's farm, including English Lavender, also known for its sweet fragrance. Lavender also is used to make crafts such as wreaths, and for cooking and medicine.

Because each plant demands an exact amount of water to survive, Knight began testing a prototype for a micro-irrigation system developed by a California company. The system offsets Central Oregon's shallow, sandy soil with a more efficient, targeted spray than the typical spray wheel.

"The system conserves water and provides efficiency so that each plant gets what it needs," Knight said. "We're able to monitor the moisture level closely and see how much it needs to live. This leaves more available for someone else downstream."

If employed by other farmers who raise row crops, the more efficient system eventually will lead to more savings, Bohle said, especially with the high labor and capital investment involved.

Jeff McDonald can be reached at 383-0323 or at jmcdonald@bendbulletin.com.
From bendbulletin.com - published daily in Bend, Oregon, by Western Communications, Inc. Copyright 2005.

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