Lavender Fields Forever
05/15/2013 11:14AM ● Published by Enjoy Magazine
For David McGee-Williams, Ph.D., and his wife, Gail Winslow, Ph.D., perseverance truly has overcome nature. To the delight of thousands of visitors since 2004, their trials and refusal to give up reaps one of the most stunning landscapes in far Northern California: the Mt. Shasta Lavender Farms.
Their lavender story began more than 20 years ago when the couple moved to Mount Shasta to escape Bay Area congestion. The two loved gardening together and needed a physical outlet to compensate for the long hours spent at their psychology practice in Redding.
But as years passed and their neighborhood developed, trees grew tall and blocked the essences of their joys. Without the sunlight they craved and a clear view of the mountain they loved, it was time to seek something different.
When they found their farm property, it was nothing but 800 acres of rocky soil. No road. No electricity. No water source. One thing it did have: a stunning, unadulterated view of Mt. Shasta. That was enough for them. So they bought the property, built a dirt road into it and drilled their first well, which didn’t produce enough water. So they dug another, deeper well, this time hitting a water lode.
They picked a spot to clear for their first lavender field, one of the few crops they suspected would thrive in the rocky soil. “We discovered the rocks went near to the center of the earth,” says David, who, after weeks of futile skimming, rented an industrial tractor to till a “mine field of rocks” from that first plot.
Anxious to see their vision bloom, the couple air-freighted their first 4,000 plants, a fragrant, patented, English variety, from Australia. Eager to meet his precious living cargo, David drove to San Francisco to greet them.
The USDA quarantined the shipment, relegating the plants to a locked warehouse with no water or sunlight over a three-day weekend. “I almost cried,” says David, who thinks his near-tears earned him a one-time pass through inspection if he could prove the plants were “clean.” So David and a friend shook growing medium off 4,000 plants by hand before wrapping each in damp newspaper.
Only 400 plants survived.
“We were terribly discouraged,” says David.
Stymied but not stopped, they found an Oregon grower, invested in more lavender and got to planting.
When the fields began to bloom in earnest, friends encouraged David and Gail to open their garden to the public. Their first open weekend, only 12 cars came through. “Our daughter said, ‘You know,
maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.’”
But the idea of sharing their farm seemed right. So they continued to open during summers, selling soaps, lotions and lavender-based products they made themselves.
In 2012, more than 10,000 visitors from as far away as Japan and Australia meandered, clipped lavender sprigs and inhaled the abundant 20-acre aroma, believed to relieve stress and anxiety. Entrance to the farm is free and visitors are encouraged to walk far and wide or take an 18-minute meditative stroll through a labyrinth.
“Be sure to take your camera when you go,” says Christina LaBella, a Redding resident, “because the views are spectacular. Pack a lunch so you can stay and enjoy the views.”
“When they first get here, people burst into tears all the time,” says Gail. “It’s that stunning.”
While this labor of love called Lavender Farms demands endless work, investment and periods of disappointment, it more than pays off. “Working an office job is deadly,” says David. “Farming is physical with a purpose. If we are here doing this, we aren’t doing that. And if I’m doing that, I’m not thinking about this. It’s the perfect balance.”
“And yes, we’re tired,” says Gail. So at the end of every season, after the visitors are gone and they are weary to the bone, the two collapse into chairs, pour champagne and take in their mountain. And then one says, “You know what we should do next year?” •
Mt. Shasta Lavender Farms • 9706 Harry Cash Road, Montague • (530) 926-2651