‘Lucky in Lavender’ – Blue Skye Lavender Farm in Virginia
Just as the smell of lavender is either loved or hated, McPherson’s journey to becoming a farmer of the purple-colored flower had its ups and downs. And it all started from scratch in the sparsely populated and unknown community of Modest Town.
I could start by saying, “Once upon a time…,” but this fairy tale comes true.
It was 2003 when McPherson found what she now calls Blue Skye Farm.
“I really wanted a piece of land that was mine,” she said. “I had been divorced and the house that we … live in now, I went through a lot to buy it and it had been a family home. I just wanted something that somebody couldn’t take away from me.”
McPherson said her friend was the president of the Nature Conservancy and they used to ride horses together. When McPherson was looking for a piece of land, her friend turned her onto a 400-acre space in Modest Town that was about to be subdivided.
“And he goes, ‘Why don’t you go take a look at this property; it’s kind of cool; it’s down by the water,’ and I said, ‘Well where is it?’”
He told her it was on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and she replied: “Where’s that?”
McPherson had been living and working as a psychotherapist in Bethesda, Md., which is more than three hours away. Plus, Modest Town is a hidden gem, which was listed as having only about 168 residents as of July 2014. But most of all, to access the property, you need to leave U.S. 13, take some smaller roads, turn onto a gravel dirt road, and then it’s onto the grass.
McPherson grabbed a map and drove to Modest Town. Not knowing a thing about the area, McPherson said, “The first day I walked the property, I saw white caps off in the distance and I realized that I could get to the ocean from the property. So I bought the property that day.”
Blue Skye Lavender Field
Nearly 14-acres of a 400-acre field to call her own. What was on those 14 acres? Nothing. It was pretty much an old soybean farm, but that didn’t deter McPherson. She set up shop.
“All of it was just flat, there were no trees, and so I brought my tent and my outdoor shower and my little propane tank so I could cook and I just started planting trees and thought that, you know, this would be fun!” she said.
She camped there on weekends with just her tent all year-round.
“In the winter time, I put one of these pop-up things over my tent and then I would leave them here and then pray to God they were still standing the following week,” she said.
That was the system McPherson had in place for nearly five years, creating what’s now a beautiful masterpiece and maze of wild trees, beautiful bushes, and luscious lavender. She eventually built a shed she said was simply “too cute” for tools and turned it into a bedroom. After that, she built a boathouse on the water, which now holds a kitchen.
Then It Was Lavender
It was in 2008 that McPherson began an intimate relationship with lavender — one she didn’t even want at first as she explained.
“So I’d plant a pine tree and the next day I’d wake up and all the bark would have been off; (deer) rub it with their antlers — or it’s new skin, so they just eat it,” she said.
Deer, eating away her hard work. So McPherson did what most people would do…she Googled “deer deterrent.”
That’s when she stumbled onto information about deer disliking the scent of lavender flowers and leafs. It was time to place an order.
“So I ordered 300 little lavender plugs; I knew nothing about lavender,” McPherson said. “In fact, I didn’t even like lavender. When the boxes came, they literally looked like those Dunkin’ Donut boxes. I thought I was going to need this huge truck to haul them out here. They’re just little, itty-bitty plants. My daughter was with me and I said, ‘Alexandra, they made a mistake. I ordered 300 little lavender plugs and there’s 3,000!'”
Maybe by mistake, or luck, or both. But McPherson and Alexandra got to work.
“She just looked at me and laughed and I said, ‘Should we plant it?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s just plant it,’” McPherson recalled.
They grabbed their spoons, called some friends and dug 3,000 holes to plant 3,000 lavender shrubs.
McPherson admits it was a learning process. She said, “I had no idea what I was doing. I made a lot of mistakes. I broke several bones.”
But those little plugs – all 3,000 of them – started to grow.
“The more it grew, the more beautiful it was,” McPherson said. “Lavender made the farm beautiful. It went from being kind of a cool, really pretty place to being a totally awesome place. Between the near constant ocean breezes, the relentlessness of the Virginia sun, and the sandy aridity of the local soil, Blue Skye Farm and ‘Lavandula x intermedia’ were a match made in heaven.”
Not too long after planting her first crop of lavender, McPherson began to create her first lavender-based products. And much like her initial foray into growing lavender, she didn’t initially set out to create lavender products. Her first product came out of necessity. Since McPherson was always working outdoors, the brutal Virginia sun was taking a toll on her skin. So she decided to fix the problem herself. That’s when she stirred together a lavender sugar exfoliant, which she used to care for her skin.
Soon after that, her second product was born … this time completely by mistake.
“I was in the kitchen and I had just made a fresh batch of the exfoliant,” McPherson said. “My daughter took out a spoon and she started eating it. I looked at her and said, ‘What is with you?’ And she just said, ‘Mommy, it tastes so good.’”
That’s when McPherson decided to make some lavender candy.
“We live in Virginia and I think brittle was America’s first candy, so I said, ‘Lets make some brittle.’”
So McPherson ground up everything in the exfoliant, except the oil, and made her first batch of lavender brittle. She went on to make a variety of types of lavender brittle. She makes it with almonds, peanuts, pecans or cashews — sweet and nutty with that floral earthy tone from the lavender. Shops in Richmond and Onancock, Va., as well as Bethesda, Md., sell McPherson’s products. Soon though, you may see her products at a much larger retailer, Whole Foods.
It’s not a total surprise that McPherson had good luck making the brittle. When she was a child, she was already in love with baking with her Easy Bake Oven. She eventually started her own dessert business, which she said paid her way through graduate school, and later helped her open her own restaurant in Washington, D.C.
When Martha Stewart’s food editor found her website and decided she and Blue Skye Lavender needed to be featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine, that’s what really brought her business to life. Martha Stewart’s team visited the farm for a few days in the summer of 2013 and the article was published the following summer. Following that article, she’s amped things up and said the first store you’ll see her products in is a Whole Foods in Richmond. McPherson has been told once she gets her first item – the brittle – into that store, it’s sort of an open door since all the paperwork is done.
She isn’t going to stop there either.
“I hope that I’ll have a really lovely facility here that we can make all our products so that whoever works for me can be here and enjoy this,” McPherson said. “I hope to employ local people because the Eastern Shore of Virginia needs jobs. I hope that my brittle is in every store across the country and I hope that every woman is using my exfoliant.”
McPherson is still taking things one step at a time, but is looking forward to the future. Not only that, but she made plans to plant a new crop of lavender this spring with two varieties — Provence and Royal Velvet.
When she thinks back to the beginning of her lavender journey, McPherson laughs, saying, “I think the great thing about these type of experiences is that it’s very humbling.”
One thing that she learned was that lavender is a very mysterious kind of plant.
“It’s one of the oldest plants that’s used in all types of products; the Romans used it,” McPherson said. “It has quite a legacy, which I really respect. I have fallen completely in love with it.”
Fallen in love with a plant that she once could not stand, which has now become quite the business and passion.
Growing and Caring for Lavender
McPherson said lavender is harvested in the early part of June. It’s all cut and dried by hand — a labor-intensive process. McPherson said they cut about 25 to 30 stems, tie the stems together with a rubber band, and hang the bundles upside down in shade or darkness to preserves the color until they dry. This takes about a week if the weather is hot. She removes the buds and stores them in airtight containers to use in her products. She also uses fresh lavender to infuse oil for other uses. She uses dried lavender in her candies.
After the lavender blooms, she harvests it and then shapes and prunes every lavender shrub. This means cutting the bush down to last year’s old wood and shaping each plant into a ball. She said this helps keep the plants strong. Most lavender plants have a seven-year life span for healthy growth and production. McPherson said her plants have nearly reached that point.
Lavender, or lavandula as it is known in the botanical world, is a native of the Mediterranean and is part of the mint family. There are many different types of lavender and they are most commonly violet, lilac or blue in color, but are occasionally blackish purple or yellowish. Research suggests the word lavender is derived from French, lavandre, but coming from the Latin word, lavare, which means to wash. This refers to lavender’s scent.
It’s more than a plant, though. Lavender is used in many different ways. It is commercially grown for its essential oil, which can be used as an antiseptic and has anti-inflammatory properties. Most people are familiar with lavender being used as a scent in candles and bath and body products. Some bakers use lavender sugar, like McPherson does in her brittle, while it can also be candied and used in cake decorating.
Another very common use for lavender is aromatherapy. It’s used as a stress reliever, but also to soothe headaches, burns and insect bites. Some people even use lavender oil as a treatment for acne. Some reports show that lavender oil was used in hospitals during World War I.
According to a service of the National Library of Medicine, there is some evidence that a combination of lavender and oils from thyme, rosemary, and cedar wood may improve hair growth by as much as 44 percent after seven months of treatment.
Lavender is used for things like restlessness, insomnia, nervousness and depression. It is also used for digestive issues, loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea and intestinal gas.
McPherson’s products can be purchased online at: http://www.blueskyelavender.com/
Her products can also be found at any one of these stores:
5 North St., Onancock, VA 23417
5805 Grove Ave, Richmond, VA 23226
6904 Arlington Rd, Bethesda, MD 20814
There is no date yet on when McPherson’s products will hit store shelves in Whole Foods, but she said they will be in the chain’s Richmond store first.