Lavender’s roots run deep in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley.
Purple benches and trashcans line city streets and the plant is seen throughout the area in roundabouts, at multiple farms and in front yards.
The shift to agritourism began with the first farms and Sequim Lavender Festival on Aug. 2, 1997. Then, the event was one day, but now spans three days side-by-side with a separate event — The Sequim Lavender Farm Tour & Fair.
The two events combine to make Sequim Lavender Weekend and bring tens of thousands of people through the whole month of July and summer.
Mike Reichner, owner of Purple Haze Lavender Farm and one of the festival founders, said he knew it could be this big years ago.
“I thought we were reinventing the wheel,” he said. “I had no game plan but I felt in my heart it was going to work.”
How has it grown? “Exponentially,” says Reichner.
Without looking at personal finances from each individual lavender farm and business, one way to see lavender’s financial impact is through city sales tax receipts. City sales tax revenues between July 1997-July 2014 have more than tripled, from $76,106 to $241,567.
(While all lavender touring farms except Purple Haze are in the Sequim/Clallam County greater area, many of the resources such as food, retail and hotels are in the City of Sequim.)
The festival went from one day to two days in 1998 and saw a slight decrease in city tax revenues during July.
However, the event continued to grow going to three days in 2001. City revenues in July increased each year from 1998-2006. The economic downturn began during this time and so did revenues for the city, until July 2010 when city revenues saw its biggest July total ($255,703) ever.
Elray Konkel, City of Sequim administrative services director, said, “It is safe to say lavender is a key event (to July’s success). It’s also safe say it’s Sequim’s sunniest period. July is busy, kids are out of school and people have more money to spend on tourism.”
July’s sales tax revenues have become such a significant financial component to the City of Sequim that it creates more revenue than the city’s traditionally biggest month of December. Sequim’s Julys have outsold December in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013 by nearly $29,000 per year.
Since 1997, the city’s sales tax has risen by 0.8 percent and is currently at 8.7 percent sales tax with 0.85 percent going to the city, 0.2 percent to the Sequim Transportation Benefit District and 0.085 percent to the Sequim Public Safety Tax.
Scott Nagel, former executive director of the Sequim Lavender Growers and Farmers Associations, said his agency — Birchhill Enterprises — did an economic impact study of the Sequim Lavender Festival in 2005. In the study it shows that the overall impact of the festival that year was about $3.65 million. Of that estimate, $1.97 million came from visitors and visiting vendors more than 50 miles away.
Some of the demographics that year showed that 93 percent of people came as groups, 70 percent of attendees were female and the largest attending age group was 51-64.
Demographics in gender and age remain mostly the same, says Vickie Oen, general manager of Purple Haze.
“The average person is the 50-year-old woman but we’re definitely seeing a 20-something group,” Oen said. “Farming has come back into fashion because people want to know where your food and products come from, but the shoppers are 50-plus-year-old-women.”
Nagel said visitors are what drive the economic impact and are highly prized. “To get those people you need an ongoing marketing program,” he said. “You need to be finding new people to come to the event to replace those that drop off after a few years.”
However, the momentum ceased when there was a divide in the group, Nagel said.
A lavender divide
The Sequim Lavender Festival saw major changes in January 2011. Farms on tour like Purple Haze started the Sequim Lavender Farmers Association to create and operate the Sequim Lavender Farm Faire, now called the Sequim Lavender Farm Tour & Fair. Smaller farms remained with the Sequim Lavender Growers Association to manage the Sequim Lavender Festival.
Oen said 2005-2007 were up years for the original association but 2009-2010 were “about break even years.”
She attributes the down years to increased costs like busing, fuel prices and perceived bad weather.
“When Seattle says it’s going to rain, it affects us even if it’s beautiful here,” Oen said. “People forget Sequim is in a blue hole. But (2005-2007) were the good years no matter where you were.”
Mary Jendrucko, current executive director of the Sequim Lavender Festival, said the 2010 festival revenues were very poor compared to previous years.
“That is when we needed to change how we were doing things and change did come,” she said.
Farms with the Lavender Festival began promoting themselves more as free-to-visit farms, while farms on tour with the Farm Faire continued their paid admission tour.
In years following, some of the Farm Faire members have retired or sold to a new generation of farmers like Jardin du Soleil, Lost Mountain Lavender and Olympic Lavender Farm, adding to and remodeling their farms.
Jendrucko, who joined the Lavender Festival in 1999 with her Sequim Lavender Company, said many of their farms had their best Fridays and Saturdays during the festival ever in 2014.
“After all is said and done financially, we make what we need to produce the next year’s event staying in the black, which is what our overall goal is,” Jendrucko said. “This is done by members stepping up and taking on different responsibilities for the overall success of the festival.”
Marketably, the Sequim Lavender Festival and Sequim Lavender Farm Tour & Fair have different events with the festival’s Street Fair on Fir Street and free to visit farms neighboring pay-to-visit farms and the Lavender in the Park in the Water Reuse Site.
With money now split between the organizations, advertising and building up the events is more work on both sides. Before the split, the growers association was spending about $60,000 on advertising Oen said and now the farmers association is spending about one-third of that.
But since the split, Nagel said, many visitors and locals have given up on the festivals.
“It is clear that many long-standing visitors dropped off and the marketing budgets of both organizations were reduced to almost nothing as the ticket sales that were over 15,000 dropped dramatically,” Nagel said.
He believes it’ll be hard for the Lavender Festival to return to its “good old days” too with increased competition copying Sequim’s model.
“This is a compliment, of course, but it also represents a serious marketing challenge for the future,” Nagel said. “In terms of economic impact to the Sequim-Dungeness Valley, I hope that the two organizations would get together and work on their overall image and developing a marketing plan for the next stage in the growth of the lavender industry.”
Oen said their dynamic is changing at the farms, too, with who visits.
“People are now saying they come every two to three years,” she said.
Clearing the confusion
Following the 2011 Lavender Festival and the first year of the Lavender Farm Faire, officials with the City of Sequim stepped in to help eliminate confusion between the events.
Barbara Hanna, communications and marketing director for the City of Sequim and former owner of Lost Mountain Lavender, said the city extended its contract to both groups in 2011 for services such as extra police, signage and such with some stipulations.
Most notably, the city issued a memorandum for the groups to use unified websites in addition to their own and advertise together while maintaining separate finances.
The city also prints off 30,000 all-encompassing guides to both groups’ maps and lists of events under the Sequim Lavender Weekend umbrella.
“It became evident that year the public was very confused,” Hanna said. “After that, we began talking with both of the groups about how we can make it better.”
With visitors, Hanna said they aren’t thinking about who is putting on what event but about their overall experience in Sequim.
“There has been a lot of progress that’s been made,” Hanna said. “From the feedback I receive from volunteers and the Visitor’s Information Center people now understand there are multiple events and information out there. One key component is the city’s tourism website (visitsunnysequim.com) and have both different associations’ events side-by-side.
“That’s been the goal all along is to give them the complete picture and let them decide.”
Oen agreed. “For tourists, I hope when they come, they just come to see lavender and make their own choice,” she said.
Since the split
Jendrucko said her business’ booth at the Street Fair has been consistent or a little higher each year since the lavender farms separated.
She attributes it to attitude and marketability.
“A few vendors do complain, but they look grumpy and just sit there,” she said.
In the other organization, Reichner said Purple Haze has thrived and was marketably up in 2014.
While he doesn’t like to speak about the split, Reichner said they haven’t seen an economic change at Purple Haze since he helped start the farmers association.
“We’re lucky enough in our organization that we’ve always seen upward mobilization despite the economy or split,” he said. “Our expectations are really high. We expect to grow every year.”
New farm owners as part of the tour in the farmers association came in during or after the split, aside from Purple Haze.
Reichner said the stakes are much higher now than when he started.
“There was one other lavender farm in California when I started,” Reichner said. “Now there are hundreds nationally and it’s a little but harder to be a hobby farmer and succeed. Now you have to be a real marketer. Realistically, you’ve got to be really taking a lot of risks.”
Reichner added, “I put everything into this farm. I quit my job and put my retirement into this farm and because no one else was there, it worked.”
Oen said a new generation of farmers are raising families on lavender farms while the older guard is doing lavender farming in retirement.
The farmers association has opted to expand outside of Lavender Weekend with farms doing joint efforts like the Tour de Lavender or individual farms such as Jardin du Soleil’s music festival Jungible Festival.
“We realized it’s silly to use just one weekend,” Oen said. “We want to attract a different audience with events like Tour de Lavender. There are many people who have never known about Sequim who come here for it.”
Jendrucko said the growers association continues to promote that all of their events are free to attend while Oen said her group will continue to promote each farm as its own festival.
Jendrucko said the lavender festival definitely has left a positive impact in Sequim.
“People come from all over the U.S. as well as the world to see our Sequim Lavender Festival and farms,” she said. When you say the name ‘Sequim’ people say, “that’s the lavender place. You can tell it has an impact on Sequim when they redesign a logo for the city to include lavender in it,” she said.