Story Amy G. Hadachek
Cuba, Kan.


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August 15, 2013
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Kansas farmer enjoying his place among expanding lavender industry

To relax at the end of the day, some people enjoy drinking a cup of chamomile tea.

Mike Neustrom prefers drinking lavender tea.

The Kansas farmer is well aware of its effectiveness.

He’s got a whole field of lavender from which to choose at his Prairie Lavender Farm, located just outside of Bennington, Kan. — one of very few lavender farms in the state, but one that’s part of a growing industry.

Neustrom, a certified, naturally-grown lavender farmer, has been planting and harvesting the light-purple colored plants by hand for a myriad of purposes since 2002.

“Lavender is relaxing,” he said. “But you don’t want to be driving while drinking it.”

In addition to a relaxant, Neustrom creates lavender products for medicinal uses.

“People tell me that, when they get a migraine or cluster headache, they like to rub a little bit of lavender essential oil on their temples, and 20 minutes later, their headache is gone,” he said. “I don’t suffer from headaches, but all I know is they keep buying more. I don’t state that it heals. I just say it alleviates pain.

“Just keep it away from your eyes.”

Heustrom calls it “first aid in a bottle.”

“It’s a natural antiseptic and an analgesic. Lavender use dates back to the Egyptian pharaohs, who declared that lavender essential oil was for royalty only. Also, during World War I, when medics ran out of medicine, they used lavender essential oil to treat wounds.”

The lavender field of dreams located in Ottawa County is grown without pesticides or herbicides, and is inspected by a county Extension agent.

“Our farm is certified naturally-grown lavender, but it’s not certified organic, which is a quasi-government process with additional costs. The lavender plants are all in rows, but I can’t convince the neighbors that it’s a row crop,” Neustrom said with a smile.

Neustrom’s involvement in the lavender industry goes beyond his own farm.

Neustrom is the treasurer on the board of the U.S. Lavender Growers Association, an organization that launched on April 27, 2012.

“We’ve had 118 members join in the past year and a half,” Neustrom said. “There are now five lavender farms in Kansas, and possibly a sixth farm developing.”

There are over 400 varieties of lavender.

Neustrom grows 10 different types, including Munstead, Hidcote, Buena Vista, Twickle Purple and Nana.

He also grows two hybrids; Provence and Grosso.

“Hybrids are not a true lavender, and can’t reproduce themselves, but are still in the lavender family,” explained Neustrom, who grows the lavender on the farm with some help from his wife, Dianne — a full-time customer service representative for Crestwood Cabinets.

“Historically, lavender has been native to the Mediterranean region. It’s been found largely in France, Bulgaria, New Zealand and China,” Mike said.

But the lavender plant’s popularity has grown in the U.S., over the past 20 years.

“Lavender has been prevalent in Washington State,” said Neustrom.

Lavender harvest typically begins sometime between late May and early June.

With several different types of lavender growing on his farm, Neustrom’s harvest start dates are scattered, and secondary cuttings can easily begin again in the late fall.

“It may come up after that, but I refuse to go out after Halloween to harvest,” chuckled Neustrom. “Since I have different varieties, they come ready at different times. Each variety of lavender has different length stems. Usually I have four to five people working an average of six weeks to harvest the lavender, but I also hire a harvest crew to help cut all the 4,000 plants,” said Neustrom.

During one particular year, Neustrom’s bountiful harvest required hiring 15 people to help.

From those 4,000 plants, Neustrom cuts an average of 37,000 bundles.

One bundle has 150 stems, and there are 12 bundles in an average plant per year.

“We use Japanese harvest sickles, and each plant is gathered into a bundle,” said Neustrom, noting the entire process is accomplished by hand.

He waits until the plants are three to four years old, to obtain the best results.

“We cut as far down as we can,” Neustrom said.

Sometimes the lavender can be as challenging as it is beautiful to look at.

Besides harvesting by hand, lavender is also planted manually — although, since lavender is a perennial plant, it doesn’t require planting every year.

“I get two to three cuttings off each plant, which can last 10 years,” said Neustrom.

Lavender honey is also made at the Neustrom farm, which means — yes — Mike is also a beekeeper.

“It kind of goes along with it all,” he said. “Currently, we have two colonies of bees, with 30,000 to 40,000 bees in each hive. We own the lot across from us, and keep the hives there.”

However, with the drought affecting his lavender over the last four years, he decided to temporarily relocate a hive near an alfalfa field.

“The bees don’t get much nectar out of the lavender, because I cut them before they flower,” said Neustrom, noting they use only the lavender buds. “Also, we’re finally just able to pull some honey from the hives just this month. Last year, we had 41 days of 100-degree-plus temperatures and no rain.”

Neustrom doesn’t irrigate.

His farm is also certified bee-friendly.

All this from a farmer who retired twice, but enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to grow lavender.

“I used to travel all over the region, from Iowa down to Texas, but got tired of it. Then, when I was visiting my sister in Austin, Tex. She knew a writer, Sharon Shipley, who was attending a lavender conference in Austin. I decided to attend the conference, and then thought, ‘hey I could do this.’

“And, I can.”

Shipley wrote “The Lavender Cookbook” and won a national and international book award for it.

“It’s still the only cookbook I carry in my store,” said Neustrom.

Shipley has since passed away, but in her memory, any money that Neustrom makes from selling her cookbooks is donated to a cause in her name.

After that conference in Austin, Neustrom made up his mind to learn everything he could about the business.

“It took lots of homework, and I pestered the heck out of the other lavender growers ‘til they got sick of me,” he chuckled.

All that advice helped propel Neustrom’s lavender farm to success.

He built a barn because he needed more room to hang and dry the lavender.

The barn also doubles as a gift shop, which has become a popular stop for tourists and residents.

Forty percent of Neustrom’s lavender products are sold on his website, www.prairielavenderfarm.com .

Neustrom makes all his lavender products by hand at the farm.

“It takes 200 gallons of buds to make one pound of lavender oil by weight,” said Neustrom. “To make the lavender essential oil, I use a copper still and bottle it in amber-colored bottles, and age it at least six months, but preferably up to a year before making products with it.”

The most popular lavender products are bath soaps, aromatherapy, lavender vanilla tea, culinary lavender, as well as hydrosol and others.

“Hydrosol is basically distilled water with some essential oil still suspended in it. When I steam-distill the oil, the distilled water has to be separated from the oil,” explained Neustrom. “We also create room diffusers and candle melts like the Scentsy products.”

Neustrom says lavender will even make welts disappear.

“One of my workers got stung twice by a wasp. He sprayed lavender hydrosol on it, and the welts were gone the next day,” reassured Neustrom.

“More and more in grocery stores, products including window cleaner, glass cleaner and even Tide laundry soap are offering lavender. Beyond education, we want to capture some of the sales that are going overseas, and keep them here,” said Neustrom.

Lavender is growing in interest and in need.

“For one, it’s a nice, clean scent. People with allergies are backing away from fragrances, and are using essentials,” Neustrom relayed. “Instead of a fragrance, people think of it as a natural scent.” ❖


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The Fence Post Updated Nov 6, 2013 02:31PM Published Aug 22, 2013 09:05AM Copyright 2013 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.