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For the love of lavender
There is a first time for everything and for Victor Gonzales that means opening his lavender farm for the upcoming Sequim Lavender Farm Faire.
Although Victor has been growing and propagating lavender in Sequim for the past 16 years, his farm was never one of those on the popular farm tour during the Sequim Lavender Weekend. This year, however, finds Victor and his family, wife Maribel and two sons, weeding, painting and otherwise spiffing up the farm for the upcoming Farm Faire.
“I didn’t think about opening before,” says Victor, who calls himself first and foremost a plant grower and supplier.
But, he continues, “It takes time to build a business and now is the right time to open.”
He enthusiastically admits to loving lavender and all plants, saying he wants to support the lavender industry in the Sequim area.
“By me opening (my farm), will help to draw people to the Faire.”
Looking over his two acres of dozens of varieties of lavender just outside Sequim on Old Olympic Highway, Victor says he never thought he would get this far. While it’s true he has spent most his of life farming, it was planting and harvesting fruits and vegetables, not lavender.
“I didn’t know what lavender was until I moved to Sequim,” he says, poking a bit fun at himself.
Born in Michoacån, Mexico, Victor was the second youngest of 12 brothers. When he was 10 years old, his father went to California for work. In 1986, when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Act, the entire family moved to California. Victor was 15.
His first job was picking fruit in the San Joaquin Valley, but he eventually landed a job in a packing company, admitting he was happy to be working in an air-conditioned building. Unfortunately, Victor was seriously injured playing soccer and was no longer able to work in the agricultural industry.
In 1996, his brother-in-law, who lived in Sequim, told him about job opportunities in the area and so Victor and his young family moved to the North Olympic Peninsula. He waited tables at a local Mexican restaurant but eventually took a job at Sequim Valley Ranch. One day the ranch manager asked him if he could grow lavender.
His answer: “What’s lavender?” Then he added, “If it’s a plant, I can grow it.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t true on the first try. All 300 lavender plants died. Adjusting fertilizer and water levels, they planted 1,000 more lavender plants; about half died.
“I learned the hard way, making every mistake imaginable,” Victor recalls of those early days.
Victor took it upon himself to learn as much as he could about the optimal conditions for growing lavender and how to work out propagation strategies. He talked with other lavender growers in the area and took a Washington State University extension class to learn about soil types and climate.
The long hours, hard work, study and mistakes paid off. Under the auspices of Sequim Valley Ranch, plants were sold under the name Sequim Valley Lavender. When Sequim Valley Lavender closed in 2004, its customers contacted Victor, wanting his lavender. And the rest, as they say, is history. Victor began his own propagation business, calling it Victor’s Lavender. He bought his present house and acreage, once a dairy farm, and in 2005 put the first lavender plants in the ground.
But that’s not the whole story. Turns out, Victor is somewhat a celebrity when it comes to lavender, or least a household name when it comes to propagating the plant.
Victor is considered the go-to lavender expert, not only on the North Olympic Peninsula, but also throughout the world. He has helped many a lavender farmer in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley save entire fields of lavender plants, giving advice on planting, irrigation and fertilizing techniques.
“When I go into a consulting session, I literally start from the ground up to find ways to make their lavender and business healthier,” Victor says.
Two years ago, he developed a DVD detailing the process of selecting lavender plants, as well as harvesting and drying lavender.
“If you want to do it, you can do it,” is the upbeat advice he gives lavender farmers, including those in Mexico, Lebanon and in Morocco, where he recently spent two weeks with Moroccan lavender farmers, at their invitation.
The trip to Morocco was financed by the U.S. Agency for Internal Development, an organization that is developing partnerships with countries committed to enabling the private section investment that is the basis of sustained economic growth to open new markets for American goods, promote trade overseas and create jobs at home.
According to Victor, Morocco has more lavender than the entire U.S., but at this time, the farmers know how to grow only one variety.
“The reason for me to go is to show them how we grow lavender in the United States, how to increase their product and the quality of the lavender oil,” Victor explains. He will return, as this is a five-year project.
More important, Victor met with Moroccan government officials and was able to obtain a grant to buy a distiller, “to make a better life for the future,” he says.
In late August, he will travel to Mexico, a country wanting to do “lavender” business with the U.S., and again, at the behest of USAID.
The connections have paid off. Not only are the farmers learning how to better their lives by increasing lavender production and quality, but in 2011 Victor received recognition from the White House and President Obama for sharing his expertise throughout the world.
“Victor is respected around the world for his skill in growing lavender and the very professional and committed way he does business,” says Scott Nagel, executive director of the Sequim Lavender Farmers Association. “He wants everyone to succeed and he will do whatever is necessary to help his fellow farmers.”
Heritage Lavender Farm Tour
The lavender is in bloom and the Gonzales family is readying the farm for the big show, the Sequim Lavender Farm Faire. It’s not new to Victor, who in past years has given demonstrations at other farms. But this year his farm is open to the public, which includes a brand new store stocked with products made from Victor’s premium lavender. Maribel, who essentially manages the store, has a cosmetics line, as well as bath and kitchen products, oils and even some beyond-adorable stuffed animals.
Victor’s Lavender farm is a bit different from some of the others on tour. For instance, there is no oil distillation; Victor sends his plants to another farm for what oil he needs. Instead, it’s all about the plants.
That’s not to say the farm isn’t worth a visit. Quite the contrary: Like all six farms on tour this year, Victor’s will have food and entertainment, and most important, lessons on growing and propagating some of the best lavender in the world.
“Now that Victor has started a retail operation and opened his farm to the public, everyone will benefit from his fantastic lavender knowledge,” says Nagel, who is excited at the prospect of adding Victor’s Lavender to the tour.
From nothing to reproducing more than one million lavender plants, Victor says he most enjoys helping people select plants that are right for their homes or business.
“I have to admit, I love it,” he says with his trademark half smile.
The Sequim Lavender Farm Faire and Lavender Farm Tour is July 19-21. For more information, visit www.sequimlavenderfarms.org or www.sequimlavenderweekend.com.