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Once, There Were Blue Fields
Can organic labels save the French lavender trade?
Claire Ulrich (briconcela)     Print Article 
Published 2006-03-06 17:59 (KST)   
Around 20 people live in Eygluy, a tiny village perched on the mountains of the Drome Valley. Forgotten by man, gods, and mobile-phone coverage, this French hamlet holds on tight to a beloved heritage: lavender. Whatever happens, Christian Guion, 48, will not give up on the flower fields started by his grandfather just after Word War I, on the mountain slopes surrounding his farm. It is a matter of faith, respect, and love, and with a little help from organic labels, he has kept his purple-blue lavender fields blooming until now.

Christian Guion at work in his lavender fields in the Drome Valley, in South-East France, in July 2005
©2005 C.Ulrich
Mr Guion grows extra-fine mountain lavender, the Lavandula Angustifolia kind. A royal breed, it is often mistaken with the common lavandin, an all-purposes clone created for intensive mass-production and suburban gardeners. Fine lavender never grows below 800 meters altitude (1,200 to 1,600 meters being ideal) because it thrives on cool -- even cold -- nights and very dry, very sunny days. This ancient variety, a tamed version of the original wild lavender, is moody and delicate, and yields only 20 kilos of essential oil per hectare (2.47 acres), compared to a whooping 100 kilos for the low-quality, low-cost lavandin. But for fragrance, quality, and therapeutic uses, nothing compares to Lavandula Angustifolia, perfumers and chemists agree.

A bouquet of Lavendula Angustifolia, queen of lavenders
©2005 C.Ulrich
Guion is something of a "last Mohican," and he knows it. The purple-blue lavender fields, landmarks of Provence for centuries, are vanishing. Several droughts, combined with declining demand and competition from Chinese, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian cheap lavenders, have pushed more than one French farmer out of the flower trade. Figures talk loud. In 1960, France provided the international perfume industry with 140 tons of fine lavender extract, grown on 8,500 hectares by 5,000 farmers. In 2004, total production amounted to 71 tons on 4,600 hectares, grown by 2,000 farmers.

In the fine lavender categories, mountain lavender is barely kept alive. The last tally, in 1995, amounted to 35 tons/year on 2,800 hectares. What happened? The clean, somewhat puritan fragrance of lavender, favored up to the 1970s by respectable gentlemen and neat households, has faded out of fashion. Cheap and sugary synthetic fragrances are in.

Soon a memory? A lavender field in full bloom in July
©2005 C.ULRICH
In the early 90s, after decades of ups and downs in lavender wholesale prices, Christian Guion didn't know how to pay his next bills. Help came from environment-conscious Germany. Pharma labs were looking for high-quality organic lavender for aromatherapy products and were ready to pay as much as U.S.$120 per kilogram of essential oil (compared to $18 to $24 for common lavandin) provided it met their high standards.

Demand was rising and has kept rising since for aromatherapy treatments. Lavender has been credited since Roman times as a potent natural remedy. It soothes aching muscles, arthritic joints, and backaches; it relieves stress; it repels germs as well as diseases-carrying insects. There is now a niche market for lavender-based arthritic rubs, antiseptic lotions, mosquito coils, toiletries and cosmetics, and scented candles, provided they carry the organic label.

Mr. Guion harvests lavender the old-fashionned way: with a sickle
©2005 C.ULRICH
At the time, all Guion had to do to break into this new market was to ask for a certification from the French Organic Agriculture board. That was very easy to obtain. You see, his lavender has been organic forever. No fertilizers or chemicals: rain would wash the costly stuff down the mountain slopes. No weeds spraying: if weeds care that much for a harsh life, let them keep company with lavender. Pollution, industry, and intensive farming are concepts the locals hear about on television only; the closest town (population 8,000) lies 12 kilometers away. The only nuisances, this far up, are wild bees and the occasional boar. Guion doesn't even use machinery: the fields are too steep, no machine could drive into it without overturning. So harvesting is still done manually, with a sickle. His three sons help him with the crop, in July.

Guion's son and a friend at work: picking mountain lavender is steep work.
©2005 C.ULRICH
This charming, rustic way to grow lavender hides one harsh fact: there is no money for investment, costly experiments, or new technology. But for once, being backward saved someone's job. When the organic agriculture certification board saw Guion's farm and his lavender-oil distillation technique, they stopped asking questions and signed his agreement. There again, for essential oil distillation, all Guion did is follow his father and grandfather's routine. It goes like this. Harvest lavender, tie it in large bunches, and let them dry under the sun, in the fields, for a few days (and pray that it will not rain). This way, the fragrance will reach maximum intensity during distillation. When the time is right, collect the bunches from the fields and haul them down to the distiller for the big day.

The Guion family private distillator, in the village
©2005 C.ULRICH
Guion owns his own distillation facility, built by his father, in the village. Private flowers distillers are quite common in Provence. Many country towns have community distillers but the cost of transport and the fee are too high for isolated farms. Moreover, distillation days at the Guion distillery in Eygluy, from mid-July to mid-August, are festive family reunions. Nieces, cousins, and friends drop their occupations and travel through France to help, because distilling flower crops in a beautiful panorama is indeed a magical rite.

Workers feed the boiler stillpot with lavender flowers and pack it to maximum capacity before distillation begins.
©2005 C.Ulrich
Workers feed the boiler stillpot with lavender flowers.
©2006 C. Ulrich
In the morning, a raging fire is built in the furnace, underneath the still-pot. The still-pot is then filled to the brim with tightly stacked lavender twigs. Distillation, be it of lavender or roses, can be compared to espresso brewing. The steam literally boils the flowers, and traps the natural oil, where the fragrance lies. A condenser, cooled by running cold water, reverses the percolating steam to water. After an hour or so, out drips the essential oil, separated from the water, in a steel vat.

You can't get more organic than the Guion distillery. Nothing is wasted in mountain farming. Isolation teaches you to be self-sufficient. Water comes from a nearby mountain spring. Stacks of distilled lavenders are recycled as fuel for the boiler furnace, after a spell in the sun to dry out. The distillation waste water (hydrosol) is collected in empty mineral water bottles that Mrs. Guion saves all year round for that day. Hydrosol is cheap but still heavily scented. Local soap and detergent manufacturers buy it by the bottle to add a little something to their products.

Mrs. Guion checks on the essential oil collector. Bubbling oil, lighter than water, rises in the central steel vat.
©2006 C.ULRICH
Bubbling oil rises in the stainless steel vat.
After distillation, the essential oil is stored in plastic, gallon-size containers. The wholesaler will send a lorry from the valley to collect them. Guion's production travels far: Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and now Japan, all very keen on natural essences. Leftovers are sold in France, mostly as souvenir perfume vials and toiletries for tourists.

Another year will go by before the next crop. The organic label has taken the Guion farm out of deep water, for the time being. Rumors have it that Bulgaria and China have caught scent of organic lavender. Guion's three sons have finished farming school and would love to stay and work on the farm. But how will a cottage industry support them all and, one day, their families? Guion will not say it within their earshot but he fears he may be the last in the family to grow lavender for a living, not just for the beauty of it.

The problem with lavender is that people love the sight of the gorgeous blue fields more than its fragrance. And you can't bottle that. So, until fashion turns around to bring fine, expensive lavender back in the mainstream perfumes and cosmetics industry, it will remain a labor of love.

- Lavender distillation (.MOV) 

©2006 OhmyNews

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