The landscape west of Sequim has, no doubt, always been beautiful. There’s an obvious advantage to having the foothills of the Olympics on the near horizon. But add fields of lavender, and you have jaw-drop stunning.
Beauty is obviously a constant here. But where Cathy ’68 and Leeon ’68 Angel planted their lavender seven years ago, dairy cows once grazed. And not too long before that, you might have seen a band of Clallam people heading across the meadow toward the Dungeness River to fish. Or north toward Sequim or Dungeness bays to dig shellfish.
Lavender is a recent development around Sequim. By the 1990s, more traditional agriculture in Clallam County had slipped into a steady, sadly predictable, decline toward development. In response, a group of local citizens gathered to figure out a way to keep area farmland from sprouting too many weekend condos. Then someone thought of lavender, a Mediterranean plant ideally suited to Sequim’s mild, dry climate.
When lavender started blooming around the valley, the Angels had already moved to Sequim from Issaquah and were raising llamas on another property not too far from here. When their current property came up for sale, they promised the owner they would keep the land in agriculture. And so they have, adding a strong wholesale component to the area’s growing lavender-based agritourism economy.
A couple of miles away, Barbara Collier Hanna ’81 runs Lost Mountain Lavender. Whereas the Angels retail their products through their shop, All Things Lavender, in Pike Place Market, and open their farm to the public for only a few days in July during the annual Lavender Festival, Hanna’s farm is open much of the year. She opens her field of lavender to customers who want to pick their own and tends a small shop on the property, where she sells lavender-based products ranging from soap to honey from bees that have grazed on lavender. She makes many of the products herself, including lavender-filled pillows and sachets. Even though she does a lively business over the Internet, 80 percent of her sales take place at her farm.
If the physical move to Sequim was not far for Hanna and the Angels, the career move was dramatic. Hanna and her husband Gary—now a freelance illustrator—were very successful in the ’90s Seattle software boom. But the nosedive of the industry in 2000 prompted a change in direction.
“For 25 years, I convinced myself I liked the security of working for somebody else,” says Hanna. “And there’s something very nice about the consistency of paychecks and having your benefits paid.”
But following the demise of her company, which had only recently thrived with the rest of the industry, “I guess I came to not trust that as much anymore.”
Leeon Angel had not expected to be helping his wife run such a successful agricultural business when he retired following 30 years with his accounting partnership in downtown Seattle. His retirement present to himself, an elegant French-made airplane, sits idle on a landing strip nearby for most of the farming season. His time is consumed instead by the vintage seed cleaner that he modified to clean the lavender buds not only for their crop but also that of Hanna and other growers.
Cathy Angel majored in sociology at Washington State University, then switched fields to become project manager for a commercial food-freezing equipment company.
Although the Angels had raised llamas for 16 years, they decided, when Leeon retired, that animals tied them down too much and so looked for a different form of agriculture. “We decided maybe a crop would be fun,” says Cathy.
Now, as the largest wholesale producer in the valley and with 30,000 bundles of lavender drying in the barn, the irony of that move is hardly lost on them.
Sequim has come to refer to itself as the “Lavender Capital of North America.” Even though the valley’s production is miniscule in relation to the world market, their niche is unique. Provence, for example, from which the Sequim growers drew their inspiration, devotes most of its lavender production toward the distillation of lavender oil rather than toward value-added products and lavender-focused tourism.
Hanna’s love of gardening plus an apparently equal love of variety has resulted in her three-acre farm supporting 120 different varieties of lavender, from the large, deep-blue-blossomed Grosso to Melissa, an English culinary lavender with a peppery taste. Hanna is doing more of her own propagation, as it can be hard to get some varieties through other growers.
The Angels have kept their varietal retinue to 14, with their dominant variety being Grosso, which lends itself nicely to floral arrangements as well as buds for processing into other products. They have also started growing Goldenseal, a high-value, medicinal root crop that takes years to mature. They may start harvesting next year—if they have the time.
Even though lavender’s history as a medicinal, culinary, and floral plant reaches back beyond Roman times, lavender as an agricultural enterprise is new to North America. There is no ready market for bulk lavender, and so the growers of Sequim have drawn lavenderphiles to their fields, through hard work, enterprising marketing, and enhancing an already beautiful landscape.