On June 12, 13 and 14, 2009 I attended the 5th annual Blanco Lavender Festival in Blanco, Texas which is located in the scenic Hill Country area of Central Texas. The town of Blanco has a population of 1,550 and is approximately 50 miles southwest of Austin and 50 miles north of San Antonio. This area has grown cotton for generations but in the last ten years this crop has largely been replaced by lavender. There are approximately 25 lavender farms in the area and 6 were featured at the Festival. While 25 farms seems like a lot, one lavender farm owner thought there were no more than 30 total acres of lavender planted in Blanco County. According to the Texas Lavender Association president, Chelita Riley, there are 40 lavender farms registered in the state of Texas. Other prominent crops in the Hill Country are peaches and vineyards.
The Hill Country of Texas has rolling hills made up of limestone rock and caliche soils. The soils drain well when the hardpan is buried deep which is not always the case. The ph levels are alkaline which lavender enjoys. While normal rainfall averages 30-40 inches per year, this area is in the midst of a sustained drought which has severely affected every crop including lavender. Irrigation water usually comes from wells.
Weather in and around Blanco is hot and humid in the summer. Temperatures in the 90’s and low 100’s are normal June through September with very high humidity levels (50% or more). They are in USDA Zone 8b with lows averaging 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months.
The Blanco Chamber of Commerce sponsors the Lavender Festival and this year it was located around the old Blanco County Courthouse square in the center of town. There were over 60 vendors selling all kinds of products. Because the Festival organizers allow lavender products to be sold only by Blanco County vendors, there were just 6 booths selling lavender products. The vendors’ booths were open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Farm tours were on Saturday and Sunday. The massive crowds and lack of parking kept us from actually attending the festival until Sunday morning.
The festival had several activities going on at all times. The vendors booths were open Friday afternoon, all day Saturday and Sunday selling everything from candles, soaps, t-shirts, original art, clothing of all kinds, wind chimes and more. Food was also a large part of the event with a Go Texan food court under massive tents. This area featured locally produced food items from area farmers and cooks. Other food vendors sold ice cream, barbeque, cold drinks, etc. The festival also feature several live musical bands throughout the weekend starting with a street fair and dance on Friday evening. We enjoyed a local spiritual music group who played under massive live oak trees on Sunday.
When we start to plan our Lavender Festival, we will have some great ideas from this one. There seemed to be something for everyone including our dog Molly who was very thirsty and hot while waiting for me to visit all the vendors!
The festival also had various speakers throughout the weekend on topics ranging from area lavender growers experiences, soil, water and air conservation and a successful goat cheese entrepreneur and her story. These talks were located inside the old courthouse where the air conditioning was greatly appreciated.
I spoke with the Texas Lavender Association president Chelita Riley at length about the lavender industry in Texas. She talked about the struggles lavender farmers have had with phytophthera and the ongoing drought. The persistent humidity and presence of phytophthera in the soil are the largest problems they face. The drought only makes things worse especially for those who do not have enough water to irrigate on a regular basis. The farmers inoculate the lavender plants with trichoderma every 4-6 weeks to keep the plants healthy. Trade names for this chemical are Plant Shield and Root Shield.
The Texas Lavender Association started in 2008 and has 26 charter members from all over the state of Texas. Chelita feels strongly that the lavender farmers from the entire state should band together to promote the lavender industry. She said there is strength in numbers when it comes to attracting buyers of lavender products and grant money. The Blanco Chamber of Commerce receives grant money to have the Lavender Festival each year according to its president Julie Dill. Julie also said the festival has come a long way since the first one in 2004. She believes they have hit the right combination of music, food, vendors, speakers and the lure of lavender to attract visitors from all over the country.
The first lavender farm we visited was the Texas Hills Lavender Farm. It was located about 6 miles southwest of Blanco on a steep, rocky hillside. The owners, Jill and Doak Hunter, gladly answered questions from a group of visitors about their successes and failures, techniques and equipment. They planted their first 1,000 Provence lavender sprigs in the fall of 2004. They did fine with rainfall and some supplemental water which was applied by hand. They planted 3,500 more plants on Thanksgiving Day of 2005. The drought intensified and most of these plants died due to their small size and lack of water. The Hunters installed a drip irrigation system and used well water to irrigate the remaining plants. They noted that all of the planting, watering, harvesting, drying, etc, is done by them. They do not hire anyone to help and Jill noted it is much more work than they anticipated.
They currently grow the following varieties of lavender – Provence, Grosso, Maillette, Hidcote, Hidcote Giant and Twickle Purple. They especially like Maillette for its oil. They harvest the angustifolias in June and October. Lavandins are harvested in July. Pruning takes place in February and they recommend using an Echo gas powered hedge trimmer. Go over the plant in one direction and then the other for a nice smooth mound of foliage.
Most farms have a store or market on their property that sells various lavender products. Texas Lavender Hills’ owners contract with local artisans to produce these products using their lavender. They also sell lavender plants to the public. Some items for sale were embroidered linens, canvas bags, t-shirts, soaps, lotions, note cards and baby clothing. It is worthwhile to note that this lavender farm is up for sale.
Hill Country Lavender Farm was next on our agenda. This farm is located 3.5 miles north of Blanco. Started in 1999, this is the first and most productive commercial lavender farm in Texas. They claim to have the largest line of lavender merchandise which includes more than 75 products.
I did not get a chance to talk with the owners as a mini-seminar was taking place while we were there. I did observe many things at this farm though. As you can see from the pictures below, these lavender plants have drip tape irrigation and the rows between the plants are grassy. I would estimate the planting distance between rows to be approximately 4 feet. There are also generous walking paths throughout the lavender plantings.
This farm is set up for easy harvesting and regular visits from the public. They surely had agri-tourism on their minds when planning this farm. It is also located behind a well established market located on the main north – south highway.
Note that most of these plants are not in bloom. It appears they have been harvested earlier and some blooms were left on the plants for the Lavender Festival visitors. Even though the fields of lavender were not in full bloom, many people were having their pictures taken amongst the plants.
I enjoyed attending the Blanco Lavender Festival even though the massive crowds, high heat and humidity kept me from doing all that I wanted.
One thing I learned is it doesn’t take acres and acres of lavender planted in the ground to make a successful festival. I believe adding the speakers, music and food made this event a place for hundreds to gather and have a good time. Also the information I picked up from various lavender growers about the varieties they chose, their growing conditions and how they market their products will help our local growers become more informed and successful when establishing their own fields of lavender. The festival information I acquired will help the Lavender Association of Western Colorado and Colorado State University Extension, Tri River Area plan a very successful lavender festival and conference in June of 2011.