Leaping into lavender: Two farmers who dove head first into following their dream

by | Jun 5, 2020

Every Friday on social media, we post a Farm Feature Friday showcasing one of our dedicated North Carolina farmers. Robert and Karen Macdonald, of Lavender Oaks Farm, are two of those farmers. The #FarmFeatureFriday campaign will run for an entire year on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Be sure to tune in each Friday afternoon on social and help show your support for our local farmers!

Chasing a dream is a lifelong adventure. Robert and Karen Macdonald are two people who risked everything to reach their dream of owning and operating a farm in Chapel Hill. Today their leap of faith paid off as they are one of the most well-known lavender farms and agritourism destinations in the state. “We sold just about everything we owned, including our solar business that brought us to North Carolina in 1994, and used that money to buy the undeveloped land that currently is Lavender Oaks Farm,” Karen said, “but we were determined to make our dream come true and we have done most of the work ourselves to get there.” Although neither of them grew up on a farm, they learned to plant lavender and grow their farm through experience, perseverance and hard work.

After college, Karen traveled internationally to a variety of countries, including Spain, France and Italy, where she fell in love with the beauty and versatility of lavender. “In 2015, when we bought the farm, we were having a hard time finding a great method for planting lavender here in the area, so we thought about what grows well in North Carolina and decided to mimic how strawberries are planted,” Karen said. Starting with 4,000 plants and growing to 6,000 plants, the lavender farm now harvests white, pale, deep magenta, bold purple and blue lavender varieties.

Although lavender farming is a year-round adventure, the hard work begins in the summer. “Lavender is very labor intensive and time consuming because it is harvested by hand,” Karen said, “you want to make sure you are not cutting it too close to the woody stems low on the plant.”
A typical day on the farm changes depending on the season. Harvesting starts in early June, which often involves getting started early to avoid the North Carolina heat and humidity. Once lavender bundles are harvested, they are either sold fresh or hung in the barn to dry and be used in a variety of products.

Products such as spice blends, teas, bug sprays, soaps and lotions are made year-round in the Macdonald’s on-farm copper still. They also partner with a neighbor in the community to make lavender jams and jellies. “One plant can yield 10 to 15 bundles or more of lavender,” Karen says, “and we use the oil and dried lavender buds to make our wide array of products. Products from the farm can be found in their own-farm store.

The farm also offers tours during lavender season where visitors can pick their own bundles. “We love to open our farm to the public to see the lavender in bloom and pick their own if they wish,” Karen said, “we can see as many as 200 daily visitors to our farm during lavender season for u-pick, tours, culinary events and lavender workshops.” Not only should you be excited to pick your own lavender, but you can rest assured that the money you spend is going toward a good cause. The proceeds of farm admission fees go to support the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation and A Doorway to Hope.

If you would like to see how lavender is used in the culinary world, be sure to attend one of Lavender Oaks Farm to Fork dinners. “We work with local chefs to create an exciting menu that showcases both our lavender and their talents,” Karen says, “these dinners are a wonderful way for people to experience culinary lavender in many dishes from sweet to savory, garden to glass.” The best lavender dish she has ever tasted was a beef brisket with whiskey lavender gravy prepared by Chef Whitney Dane. Chef Dane also created Robert’s favorite dish, a lavender crème brûlée.

Karen says that eating and buying local expresses the true definition of the word community. “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals,” she said, “it’s important for the success of where we live to get involved in knowing who is growing the food, who is using those crops and, in turn, how we can help others in our community to experience everything that is offered in their own backyard.”

Despite the labor-intensive process and heat during the summer harvest, the Macdonald’s love every aspect of lavender farming, especially educating their visitors on the many benefits of lavender, showing them how to use it and hearing how much they enjoy the beautiful sites and quality of products presented at their farm. “Everyday brings a new adventure, challenge and keeps us on our toes,” Karen said. In the future, Lavender Oaks Farms hopes to grow in popularity as a key N.C. agritourism destination that provides guests with a timeless setting that brings them back time and time again to experience the incredible sights and products lavender has to offer. “It’s a gift to be a lavender farmer in North Carolina,” Karen said, “we wouldn’t trade a tough day in our fields for anything in the world.”