Story by Zeta Dowdy
Even in the off-season at White Oak Lavender Farm, the soft but unmistakable scent of lavender floats up from the rows of dusted-purple herbs. The alpacas milling nearby and the Flemish Giant rabbits lounging in the sun may be momentarily disorienting, but upon seeing Julie Haushalter — her shirt, earrings, glasses and fingernails all some shade of purple — it becomes clear that this is a lavender farm.
The farm, which is situated about five miles east of Harrisonburg on an old Civil War battleground off Route 276, has run for the past three years on the elbow grease of Julie, her husband Rick, her parents Jim and Jessie Walton, and a few non-relative workers. Recently, Julie and Rick’s daughter, Rebecca, came back to work full-time at White Oak Lavender after being the manager of nearby Cross Keys Vineyard. “We like to say she’s here for quality control,” Julie said. As Rebecca humbly denied this, she carefully sprinkled teaspoonfuls of lavender buds into a tiny, organza drawstring bag. She was filling an order for 200 of them to be sent to a staff of nurses. Julie has been known to make lavender sugar cookies, lavender pound cake, and starting in the summer, she will make and sell lavender ice cream.
Lavender ice cream is currently on the menu at the Local Chop and Grill House in downtown Harrisonburg, where chef Rachel Herr adds a couple of tablespoons of rough-chopped White Oak lavender buds to a batch of ice cream, blending it with flavors of honey and vanilla. “Lavender is tricky,” she said. “It’s really light but if you add too much it can taste soapy.” The versatility of lavender doesn’t end in the kitchen. It is anti-inflammatory, meaning it can reduce swelling and pain, and antiseptic. Its distinct scent has always been popular in bath products. It can repel moths from clothing. It has calming effects and could even help with sleeping disorders. For a plant with so much potential, lavender is fairly low-maintenance and will bloom without being coaxed by chemicals.
According to About.com, lavender is a tough plant that can survive a variety of climates, from the dry heat of the Mediterranean, where it originated, to the humidity of Virginia. “Lavender is relatively easy to grow organically, but it’s still farming,” Julie said. “You have to have a good reason to do it.” Julie does have a good reason. Her sister, Susan, was diagnosed in 1996 with breast cancer and given six months to live. Julie believes the stress in Susan’s life was making the cancer more aggressive. Susan chose not to undergo chemotherapy, and instead taught art therapy classes for grieving families while she was terminal. She lived a year and a half longer than the doctor had estimated. Today, the Haushalters seem to be all about stress relief. They emphasize the calming and healing abilities of lavender in the products they sell and the activities they oversee. Julie guides groups through relaxation- and communication-oriented activities and workshops. For example, guests can meditate by walking through the stone-lined labyrinth.
Most of the folks at White Oak Lavender hold more general than specialized duties around the farm. Will Doran, the groundskeeper and a James Madison University piano major from the class of 2011, is an exception. Ever since he graduated, Doran has helped maintain the farm’s 6,000 lavender plants. He’s also in charge of the animals, giving them food and water and cleaning out the stalls and cages. There are rabbits, horses and a pony, but the alpacas are Doran’s favorite. These new additions to White Oak are apparently a little shy. “I have to catch them while they’re eating. They don’t spit as much as llamas, but they’ve tried,” Doran said as he pet a significantly more docile resident of the farm, Pumpkin the cat.
Another popular draw to White Oak Lavender is the mediated “circle process,” during which a group of employees gather and may discuss a collective goal or conflict. A member of the group may only speak when holding a “talking piece,” which is continually passed so that people who need more time to process their thoughts have multiple chances to share them. “I’ve had people come up to me and say that was the very first time they had ever been able to speak up in a faculty meeting,” Julie said. Inside the shop, the air is even more concentrated with the smell of lavender than outside. White Oak’s lavender store houses about 95 different products. These range from the expected — decorative lavender, culinary lavender — to the unusual — deep muscle jelly and lavender tattoo cream. For lavender to be such a versatile material, it must first have its oil and its water, or florasol, extracted. At White Oak, this happens in the distiller, a surprisingly uncomplicated contraption that sits atop a truck-less trailer.
Lavender is picked in the field and put into a hopper, which looks like a large metal barrel. The hopper is returned to the distiller where its contents are essentially pressure-cooked. The resulting steam travels up through a condenser, which turns it to liquid. In this state, the water and the oil are separated and collected. Julie Haushalter picked up a Mason jar of the golden lavender oil and popped it open. The fragrance punched exponentially harder than the one emitted from the whole plants. The celebrated smell attracts shoppers and tourists all year long, but White Oak is busiest starting in June. This is when the lavender is harvested, and when the Haushalters open the farm to tours Tuesday through Saturday starting at 11 a.m.
The tour costs $5, and begins with basic information on the kinds of lavender grown at White Oak. Then visitors are introduced to the animals and given a demonstration of the distillery. They also learn about some of the area’s Civil War history, and about the barn swallows that return from South America every April within the same three-day period. Julie is happy to teach beyond the tour. She says she has mentored more than 40 couples looking to start lavender farms of their own. Currently, there are many more on the West Coast than the East, because more varieties of the plant can be grown in the less humid climate. But if people like the Haushalters keep the tradition alive, there may be more lavender delectables to be had — and more of that scent to be sniffed — around the Valley.
Lavender Pound Cake
- 1 ½ cups flour
- 1 ½ cups cake flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup butter or margarine
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- 2 tsp. vanilla
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 tsp. lavender buds
- Cream butter, sugar and lavender buds
- Add vanilla and eggs
- Sift flour together with salt, soda and baking powder
- Add to creamed mixture alternating with buttermilk
- Pour in well greased bundt pan and bake at 350º for 50 minutes
- Cool and remove from pan