Cotswold Lavender, Snowshill
PUBLISHED: 10:23 26 August 2016 | UPDATED: 10:24 26 August 2016
Lavender has proved an unexpected tourist attraction for one Cotswold farmer
Crest a hill in one part of the Cotswolds and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Provence. Sandwiched between the green and gold of cereal and pasture are lavender fields striped in shades of purple. It’s an arresting sight and one that draws thousands of visitors a year yet it came about almost by accident.
Lavender was, explains Charlie Byrd, originally intended to be a way of diversifying, an extra to the arable crops on his family-run farm at Snowshill.
“Farming was going down and rather than moan about it I thought I’d find another crop,” he says.
Lavender was chosen because it suited the free-draining Cotswold soil and he thought he could find a market for the oil. What he hadn’t realised was that it would turn into a tourist destination, attracting around 30,000 visitors a year, and a thriving business in its own right.
“It’s rather taken off,” he says wryly. “Now the lavender is the most important and the rest of the farm is a bit of a sideline.”
When the project began in 2000 before the internet really took off, finding information on growing lavender and extracting the oil proved tricky.
“Nobody wanted to tell me anything about it. Really, there were not many people doing it.”
He did discover a co-operative of hop farmers who were also diversifying but to begin with they were not interested in his offer to grow lavender for them.
So, he bought 400 plants from Batsford Arboretum and “stuck them in the ground to see which plants survived”.
Then, the co-op got back in touch and asked him to grow 40,000 plants for them.
“They did look a bit poorly all winter but they did survive and are still in the ground.”
Charlie branched out on his own 12 years ago and today grows 35 different varieties on 85 acres of the farm.
The lavender divides neatly into two: the commercial plantings producing lavender oil and the areas that are open to the public.
Three varieties are grown for the oil – ‘Folgate’, ‘Maillette’ and ‘Grosso’ – all chosen for their high yields of oil and their suitability in the Cotswold conditions.
“It was a real learning process as I didn’t know one variety from another,” says Charlie, whose parents bought the farm 21 years ago.
Among those grown in the public fields are the dark purple ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Imperial Gem’ along with white and pale mauve varieties.
At the height of summer, the fields are awash with colour and filled with bees; pollinators are encouraged by strips of wild flowers that are grown amongst the lavender. Mown paths encourage you to explore and carefully labelled rows mean visitors can easily choose a lavender to grow at home.
Lavender, which is thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, grows best on poor, free-draining soil and putting it under stress leads to better oil production so the plants are fed only sparingly.
It makes lavender an ideal crop for poor patches in fields and Charlie slots it in between arable to get maximum production from each acre of land.
“We end up with a patchwork.”
Harvesting starts in mid-July and takes about two weeks. Plants are ‘picked up’ by a machine to make them upright and the top 1ft of material is cut off.
“The plant then falls back into a perfect dome,” explains Charlie. “We get one dome from one end of the field to the other.”
The machine then chops the cuttings into three-inch lengths and drops them into a trailer where steam is blown through to distil the oil. Around five acres are a cut a day and nine trailer-loads processed, with one trailer of a high oil-yielding variety producing around 70K of oil.
Lavender has been used as a perfume since the time of Ancient Egypt and most of the oil is sold to industry for use in aromatherapy, perfume and household fragrances. About 20 per cent is made into soap and other products that are sold in the farm’s shop, online and at garden centres and tourist sites across the country; St Paul’s Cathedral and Bath Pump Rooms are two customers and Cotswold Lavender also finds its way abroad including Germany and America. Among the most popular products is a slumber spray, which draws on lavender’s reputation of aiding sleep. Three tonnes of dry lavender is also used for lavender bags.
Like most farmers, Charlie prays for hot, dry weather during harvest as the lavender is best cut dry to avoid having to evaporate moisture before extracting the oil. The floods of 2007 hit him hard as they struck the day before he planned to harvest one variety and meant a £5,000 loss.
“That’s farming,” he says philosophically.
The non-oil producing plants are trimmed at the end of the summer to keep them in shape and the clippings along with the waste from distillation are returned to the fields as a natural compost.
“The only thing we’re taking away is the oil.”
Replanting takes place in September and again in the spring with around 50,000 new plants put in each year. Each lavender bush lasts about 10 years so there is a constant programme of replacement.
Meanwhile, Charlie is investigating the possibility of producing different oils, such as rosemary and lemon balm. Last year, he planted 60,000 chamomile plants to see how they will cope with the Cotswolds.
The farm opens its gates to the public for eight weeks from mid-July and an extra nine members of staff are needed to cope with the crowds with visitors from all over the country and even abroad; some even plan Cotswold holidays to coincide with the lavender flowering. The record was seven coaches arriving on one day.
“Sometimes I stand and think ‘this is all getting way out of control’,” admits Charlie. “I never intended this to happen.”
And, despite the undoubted success of his lavender enterprise, he still finds difficult to comprehend.
“I still don’t think of myself as a lavender farmer but lavender is the biggest part of the business by a long way.”
Cotswold Lavender, near Snowshill, is open daily from 10-5pm until August 7. For more details, visit www.cotswoldlavender.co.uk
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