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June 8, 2017

Thousands flock to county for seasonal purple plants

Photos/Cassandra Brown
Edith Williamson feeds rabbits, which help entertain children who visit Seven Oaks Lavender Farm near Catlett.
The farm has other species of flowers, including Bachelor’s Buttons.
We originally sold products off Mom’s front porch, and our cash register was a tackle box.
— Deborah Williamson
Seven Oaks Lavender Farm
• What: Pick-your-own lavender, herbs and flowers.

• Where: 8769 Old Dumfries Road, Catlett.

• Owners: Edith Williamson and her daughter Deborah Williamson.

• 2017 lavender season: June 2 to July 9

• Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

• Cost: Admission, $6 per adult; $4 per child 4 to 15; lavender stalks 15 cents each.

• Employees: About 20 part-time, seasonal; 8 to 10 family members part-time, year-round.

• Products available at: The farm near Catlett; Messick’s Farm Market, Bealeton, and Frying Pan Farm Park, Herndon.

• Phone: 540-272-7839

• Website: www.sevenoakslavenderfarm.com

• Facebook page: Click here.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
Butterflies and bees flutter around purple buds on a warm spring afternoon at Seven Oaks Lavender Farm near Catlett.

Six hundred lavender shrubs have started to bloom for the 36-day season, which will last until July 9.

Edith Williamson and her daughter Deborah about 15 years ago started their agritourism business “on a shoestring,” investing $600 in plants and equipment.

At first, they sold lavender at farmers markets and special events.

In 2005, they opened to the public with 100 bushes for pick-your-own lavender.

“We originally sold products off Mom’s front porch, and our cash register was a tackle box,” Deborah said.

The operation has grown to 600 English and French lavender plants on about three acres.

The farm also sells herbs, flowers and more than 100 lavender-infused products, from bed and bath items to food. Most of the products cost $1 to $10.

About 75 percent of the products — soap, sachets and other items — get made on the farm. Friends and family help make the rest.

For many of its products, the farm buys raw materials in bulk.

“In order to make our own essential oil, we would probably need about 25 acres of lavender to make it sustainable,” Deborah explained. “It takes a bushel basket of flowers to make one bottle.”

Visitors to the child-friendly farm can pick their own lavender stalks and take sachet- and wreath-making classes. A giant sandbox, bunnies and playhouse also provide entertainment.

Used in home and bath products for its relaxing scent and in cooking and drinks, the Mediterranean mint plant has grown quite popular. Lavender also can help repel unwanted insects, such as ants and mosquitoes.

Deborah estimated that 7,000 to 10,000 people visit the farm each season. Most come from the Washington D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Guiomar Ochoa travels from Chevy Chase, Md., to visit Seven Oaks Lavender Farm once or twice a year.

“I love the smell, relaxation and warmth from the owners and employees. It takes me out of the city and into a soothing environment,” Ms. Ochoa said. “I've gone with my husband, parents, children and even picnicked with friends.”

Ms. Ochoa heard about the farm from a Washington friend and first visited nine years ago to pick lavender for her wedding bouquets.

“I spent a lot of time on lavender farms in France and found the experience to be beautiful and relaxing,” she said. “I just adore lavender.”

Ms. Ochoa also uses lavender sachets around her house to scent clothing.

Deborah Williamson uses websites such as Groupon and Living Social to attract visitors with half-price admission coupons.

“With agritourism, getting people to come to you is the easiest and most lucrative way to make money,” Deborah said. “The trick is getting them to come to you.”

“And not have them all come on Saturday,” her mother added.

The owners encourage visitors to bring picnics and spend a day at the farm and elsewhere in Fauquier.

Deborah, 56, handles the marketing, paperwork and on-site store, while her month does the plant maintenance and sews products.

Edith, 79, spends anywhere from three to eight hours a day weeding and trimming the lavender garden.

“This is what keeps me agile,” she said.

The farm employs about 20 part-time high school and college students to help harvest the lavender and answer customer questions during the busy season.

“People who are coming from the city or suburbs really want to make a connection with the farm and nature, and they’re curious,” Deborah said. “The way we solve that is we have a lot of workers in the field when they come and talk to them about the plants and show them how to cut it.”

The business has grown so much that Deborah for the last five years has worked there full-time.

In 2002, she came up with the idea to start the business with her mother, who enjoyed growing flowers.

“Lavender kept popping up,” Deborah recalled. “There was an article about a Texas lavender farm in Oprah magazine. We had been to France a couple years before that and ran into lavender.

“We were definitely one of the early ones on the East Coast. I thought, we have proximity to D.C., with educated people, who would know what lavender is and would be interested, and there’s not a lot on the East Coast so it seems like it would be attractive.”

Managing customer expectations proves challenging during the height of the lavender season in mid- to late June.

“You’ll have a 100 people who say, ‘This is so beautiful,’ and you have one that says, ‘I was expecting rolling hills of lavender like France’,” Edith said.

Lavender prefers dry, rocky areas, so growing it in Virginia’s humid, wet climate can present challenges. The lavender gets planted in mounds of clay soil.

About three years ago, the lavender plants at the farm suffered fungal root rot, forcing the family to burn 500 shrubs to get rid of the disease.

But, it didn’t dampen their spirits. They invested about $25,000 in new plants, a gazebo and other items to restart the business and provide better drainage.

Seeing the enjoyment that it brings ranks among the rewards, Deborah said. “People really look forward all year to coming here. We’re surrounded by dairy farms, so it’s a beautiful view. You can see all their troubles melt away.”

The farm charges admission of $6 per adult and $4 per child (ages 4 to 15). Lavender stalks sell for 15 cents each.

Messick’s Farm Market near Bealeton and Frying Pan Farm Park in Fairfax County carry Seven Oaks Lavender products. The Catlett farm also sells lavender to Nicecream in Alexandria and Arlington to make ice cream.

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