PENINSULA PROFILE: Expertise with lavender takes him to many different shores

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

Get lavendered up in Sequim next weekend

THE MULTIFACETED LAVENDER WEEKEND is moving westward. On this year's Sequim Lavender Farm Faire tour, Victor's Lavender, 3743 Old Olympic Highway, is a new addition with a Port Angeles address. The farm, a wholesale operation for many years, is making its tour debut this year. Visitors are invited to come by and learn about growing the purple herbs from owner Victor Gonzales, see his wife Maribel Gonzales' milking shed-turned-retail store and pick some lavender to take home.

Another western farm on the Lavender Farmers Association tour is Washington Lavender, 939 Finn Hall Road. This blufftop field is beside the George Washington Inn, a replica of the Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia. Innkeepers Dan and Janet Abbott are having live music from the Baroque era on their patio, a carriage house full of lavender products and appearances by “George” himself.

Long-standing participants in the tour include the Olympic Lavender Farm, 1432 Marine Drive; Jardin du Soleil Lavender Farm at 3932 Sequim-Dungeness Way; Purple Haze Lavender Farm at 180 Bell Bottom Road and Lost Mountain Lavender Farm at 1541 Taylor Cutoff Road just west of Sequim. This tour is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, July 19, through Sunday, July 21, with tickets at $10 in advance at www.SequimLavenderFarmers
Association.com or $15 during the festival. Information is also available at 360-452-6300.

At the same time, the Sequim Lavender Growers Association hosts a tour of local fields. Admission is free to farms including the Lavender Connection, 1141 Cays Road; Nelson's Duckpond and Lavender Farm, 73 Humble Hill Road; Martha Lane Lavender at 371 Martha Lane; Blackberry Forest at 136 Forest Road; Oliver's Lavender, 82 Cameron Acres Lane; Peninsula Nurseries at 1060 Sequim-Dungeness Way and Graysmarsh Farm, 6187 Woodcock Road.

Two free outdoor fairs with vendors, food and live music are happening from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. next Sunday. The Growers Association's Street Fair is on Fir Street west of Sequim Avenue while Lavender in the Park takes place at Carrie Blake Park, 202 N. Blake Ave.

For more on these events and the many other Lavender Weekend activities — as well as lavender-related things to do throughout summer — see www.VisitSunnySequim.com.

Diane Urbani de la Paz
PORT ANGELES — From the searing heat of Bakersfield, Calif., to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, this man has seen a world of weather.

He first learned to farm on his family's place in Villa Morelos, Mexico. Young Victor Gonzales, one of 12 children born in that village in Michoacan, grew up working with chickens, pigs, fruits and vegetables.

But his father wanted something more for his children. He went to work in the United States, and after then-President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986, the entire Gonzales family moved north.

Victor was 16 when he went to work picking grapes and oranges across California.

“We were following the American dream,” Gonzales said on a recent morning in his office at Victor's Lavender, his farm between Port Angeles and Sequim.

From the mid-1980s forward, Gonzales labored under the California sun. Alongside thousands of farm workers, he followed the crops from Fresno to Bakersfield and back.

The next step of his journey found him inside the packing house. This was an air-conditioned improvement over field work. But Gonzales, who by age 24 had married his longtime sweetheart Maribel, had much farther to go.

Maribel's brother was living in a place called Sequim. There's work up here, he said. As for other reasons to come to the North Olympic Peninsula, well, the Gonzaleses had to see them to believe them.

So it was that 10 years after arriving in the States, the family went north again, now with a baby son.

And “I fell in love with Sequim. The town, the wonderful people,” Gonzales remembers.

In 1996, he found a number of jobs, which he worked simultaneously: growing garlic, running the you-pick operation at Graysmarsh Farm just outside Sequim and waiting tables at the Las Palomas restaurant in town. He also did some house painting, construction and handyman work.

A turning point came soon enough. Sequim Valley Ranch hired Gonzales to clean up the place — and then to be part of one of the early lavender-growing concerns in this part of the world.

Gonzales had never heard of lavender. Determined to grow it, he learned the hard way. During the late 1990s, he planted thousands of cuttings — and watched about half of them die. But he kept studying the Dungeness Valley soils and climate, all while tuning in to his own intuition. That intuition has played no small role in his success.

Sequim Valley Lavender became a major producer, with 20 acres devoted to the purple herb. From 1997 to 2004, the operation became one of the largest lavender wholesalers in the Pacific Northwest.

But in 2004, the owner of Sequim Valley Lavender, who spent much of his time in Hawaii, closed the farm. This proved a very good thing for one of its indefatigable workers.

Gonzales struck out on his own, with many former customers in pursuit of his lavender plants. He established Victor's Lavender as a purely wholesale business. He and his numerous lavender varieties thrived.

This farm was never part of the high-profile Lavender Festival, though. Instead of the rollout of vendors, music and crafts on the third weekend of July, Gonzales worked year round on Sequim's reputation as the Provence of the New World.

Today, Gonzales is regarded as one of this fertile valley's top experts. As a consultant, Gonzales has worked with local farmers seeking the best possible lavender, and is credited as one of the people who turned Sequim into the trademarked Lavender Capital of North America.

This summer, for the first time, Victor's Lavender is on the Lavender Farm Faire tour. The tour is part of the Sequim Lavender Weekend this Friday, July 19, through Sunday, July 21. The place at 3743 Old Olympic Highway is a stop on the Sequim Lavender Farmers Association circuit of six “heritage farms.”

In another big change, Victor's Lavender opened the doors of its new retail shop last month. The fragrant store will be open with lavender lemonade, plants and lavender-infused products from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through September.

In 2010, Gonzales arrived at another turning point: He heard from the U.S. Agency for International Development, aka USAID.

Would he go to Lebanon to teach lavender farmers there?

“They sent an email with the scope of work,” he recalled. “When I saw Lebanon, I said, 'No way. I'm too busy.'” He did have a farm and a family — now with two sons — to take care of. So Gonzales suggested a few other Sequim lavender farmers. They all declined, so a USAID representative asked Gonzales a second time.

So began his work in the lavender fields of the world. After Lebanon, Gonzales traveled to Ontario, Canada, and to Morocco twice, including a trip this June.

“I feel like I could go anywhere now,” the farmer said.

The lavender-growing life is good. Gonzales still loves to be out in the fields, with the rain and the birds and the fragrance. He's grateful for the North Olympic Peninsula's gifts: “We have mild winters . . . and we don't have summers,” at least not like those in California.

Lavender growers in Morocco's Atlas Mountains “are hard workers. They are in business,” with thousands of acres planted.

But “their families are struggling . . . they're having issues with varieties, with diseases, with marketing. I talk to them about quality control, to help them do what they do better,” said Gonzales.

The Moroccans he visits “treat me like one of their family.” The food in Morocco is fabulous and healthful, he added, smiling at the memory.

Gonzales' next trip will be in August to San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He's never been to this city, a popular tourist destination and home to many U.S. expatriates. But there's yet another group of farmers hoping lavender will be their next big thing. So there Gonzales will go, relieved that for once he won't have to use an interpreter to translate his native Spanish.

USAID “has me in their database now,” he added. “So I am the lucky one.”

Scott Nagel, executive director of the Lavender Farmers Association, has witnessed Gonzales' work in the Sequim lavender community.

“He is totally committed to helping every farmer,” Nagel said.

On his farm, Gonzales has more plants in the ground than many of his fellow growers, added Nagel.

Fifty varieties grow just in the compact garden at the front edge.

“Victor has been doing lavender longer than I've been around,” added Nagel, who is in his 10th year of Sequim lavender extravaganzas.

“He is a total American success story.”

In January of this year, Moose Dreams Lavender owners Barbara Landbeck and Beth Norris retired — but kept working with Victor and Maribel Gonzales. Since the Gonzales family decided to join the Lavender Farm Faire tour — Nagel talked them into it, Victor says with a smile — the Moose Dreams pair has helped develop a product line.

Using the Moose Dreams formulas, Victor's Lavender now has body-care products along with live plants, tools, dried and loose lavender, lavender clothes-dryer bags, purple teddy bears and products for pets: shampoo, bedding deodorizing powder and “Get Outta My Hair” flea powder.

People have been hearing about Victor Gonzales for years. Many know Maribel from the Victor's Lavender booth, first at the Lavender Growers Association's Street Fair and then at Lavender in the Park, the Lavender Farmers Association's event at Carrie Blake Park. Now, Nagel said, the lavender-curious can visit the farm from whence his famous plants come.

The Victor's Lavender retail shop — a 75-year-old milking shed from when this property was a dairy farm — sits beside the house Victor, Maribel and their two boys, ages 17 and 9, share.

Maribel is as sincere and hard-working as her husband, Nagel added. “She's very shy,” though, “and always in the background. Now they have opened up their home, basically.”

Gonzales' home includes the lavender fields, peaking now in scent and color. As for the much-touted mellowing effect of this herb, he says simply: “It works.”

Gonzales added he has long wanted to be part of the farm tour. Now that the event is days away, he's keyed up.

“You only have one opportunity” to make a good first impression, he said.

“I want to make sure people have a good experience.

“It's a big step.”

Last modified: July 13. 2013 7:45PM
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