Sunday, July 11, 2010

A visit to peaceful Lavender Ridge Farms | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Life/Travel

Take a family trip to Lavender Ridge Farms!

By ERIN COVERT / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

[Click image for a larger version] Photos by NATALIE CAUDILL/DMN
Record rainfall washed away their hopes of the farm's first big lavender harvest, but owners Jerry Ware (left), Mark Whitfield and Jane Dane are still tending the crops that survived, including cut flowers, vegetables and herbs.

GAINESVILLE – One sunny afternoon, Elvis howled from across a field. The trusty basset hound was trying to get the attention of his owner, Mark.

"I looked out there, saw something going on, and it was Cocoa," he says. Cocoa is one of two pet llamas that live on Lavender Ridge Farms, a business Mark Whitfield and three partners started two years ago after leaving their urban lives in Fort Worth behind.Mark arrived at the scene to find the llama had developed a life-threatening skin infection. Cocoa was writhing on the ground, her backside covered with maggots.
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"We called the vet out, and he started giving her antibiotics and steroids through an IV," says Mark, who is a registered nurse. "I was thinking, this llama's IV bag is five times the size of a human's! Fluid overload!"

Mark hung the bag from a nearby tree and kept the meds flowing, despite Cocoa's moving around and repeatedly dislodging the needle.
[Click image for a larger version]

Mastering the role of animal nurse is just one of many new jobs – farmer, greenhouse builder, plumber, electrician – that Mark and his business partners, Jerry Ware, Jane Dane and James Ware, have learned since moving to the country. The farm's primary business, on 20 acres of the Wares' family land, is a cut-your-own lavender field. The partners also raise old-fashioned flowers in a cutting garden, as well as herbs and vegetables. They're expanding to include strawberries next season.

Cocoa is better; her thick brown fur is growing back. But the llama's troubles were manageable compared to what the farmers faced this summer from Mother Nature.

The unusually heavy rain in July that caused flooding in Gainesville wiped out the farm's lavender crop. Lavender Ridge began the summer with record crowds of more than 1,200 people Memorial Day weekend and a forecast of profitability; it ended the summer without any lavender to sell and the financial burden of having to replant 3,000 lavender transplants this fall, all by hand.
[Click image for a larger version]
The farm raises other flowers for cut-your-own bouquets, including hybrid sunflowers (above), zinnias and cosmos.

"It was really frustrating. We just couldn't do anything about it," says Mark. "At one point, we had eight inches of rain in just a couple hours, and that's just too much."

Excess rain led to fungal problems, and in a few places the rain washed the soil away from the tops of the plant roots. They tried various treatments to quell the disease, but the rain never let up long enough for their efforts to take hold.

Lavender likes dry conditions and excellent drainage, and it's difficult to grow in North Texas clay under the best conditions. The farm, however, sits on a narrow stretch of sandy loam called the Eastern Cross Timbers, which drains better than the more prevalent clay soil.

The sandy, lavender- friendly attribute of the land was discovered by Jerry Ware, the landowner. Jerry has a degree in horticulture and managed landscapes all over the United States before opening Lavender Ridge with his sister, Jane; his father, James; and Mark.

"Our grandfather raised strawberries and melons out here," Jerry says.
[Click image for a larger version]
Elvis the basset hound has adapted comfortably to country life.

"And then there was about a 60-year break when the land was leased for grazing cattle."

Since their return to the land, Jerry and the team have worked the fields, created roads and raised chickens as well as exotic farm pets such as pygmy goats.

It's a far cry from the lives they led before. Corporate workday stress, deadlines and traffic were just a few of the reasons Mark, Jerry and Jane cited for leaving Fort Worth for greener pastures.

"I don't have to worry about whether the laundry's done in time for work," Mark says. "Now, we answer to Mother Nature and the banker."

Their new bosses keep them on their toes.

Weather catastrophes and getting disaster-relief financing, paired with the daily chores of working the land, are proving more strenuous than they expected. But when asked what they miss most about their old lives, their answers focus on the more mundane aspects of city living.

"You can't just run to get coffee; the nearest McDonald's is eight miles away," says Mark.

"We have to meet the pizza guy at the gas station midway. He won't come all the way out here."

Regardless, the farmers are enjoying the new pace of life.

"I work the hardest I ever have, but I'm also the happiest," says Jane, who worked for a cosmetics retailer before coming to the farm.

That happiness is part of the Lavender Ridge business model, and it's what they're trying to spread. They say they want to share the peacefulness with those who come to visit them.

"When people get here from the city, they're so stressed out, they come in with a hustle-and-bustle feeling," Mark says.

"By the time they leave, they're relaxed. For us, it's all about creating the experience to make people happy."

Erin Covert is a Dallas freelance writer.

Lavender Ridge Farms is open for special events and simple pleasures.

•Fall antiques sale (9 a.m.-4 p.m., Oct. 19 to 21). Lavender Ridge hosts dealers who specialize in primitives and country finds.

•Watch birds (painted and indigo buntings, bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, albino hummingbird).

•Shop (dried botanicals and art).

•Stargaze (by arrangement).

•Pick a bouquet from the cut-your-own fields.

Plant lavender transplants high and dry, mounding the garden bed for maximum drainage. Plant in full sun.

Mulch with pea gravel or other small pebbles. Mulch keeps roots cool in summer and serves as a barrier between lower branches and damp soil.

Poke a finger into the soil before watering; unless it feels dry to the first knuckle, don't. Most people kill lavender by overwatering.

Don't pour water directly on the plant. Lavender prefers water on the soil, not its leaves.

Varieties to try include 'Provence' and 'Grosso' (Lavandula x intermedia).


2391 County Road 178 (about 5 miles east of Gainesville)

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday- Sunday; 940-665-6938.