DUNGENESS — This is a story of life, loss and new life — infused with lavender.
Mary and Steve Borland were married for nearly four decades. In the mid-1990s, they left their home town of Portland, Ore., and came to Sequim, where they spent their last 15 years together building Olympic Lavender Farm. A certified organic operation, it was to be at the leading edge of the Sequim-Dungeness Valley’s herbal transformation.
Together with six other growers who shared a vision for the valley, the Borlands purchased land, planted their lavender and proceeded to create a brand-new destination: the trademarked lavender capital of North America, a place where people — from Germany, Texas, Port Angeles, Norway — come to immerse themselves in the fragrant bundles.
The high lavender season begins in late June and continues through August, the harvest month — but of course the pinnacle is the third weekend of July, when some 30,000 people descend on Sequim and its purple fields.
The Borlands welcomed the thousands to their place, a wide-open expanse on breezy Marine Drive where they offered you-pick lavender and a farmhouse filled with Mary’s gifts, from lotions to pillows to honey from the resident bees.
Then, in late 2007, Steve was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was able to work through two more lavender seasons, but in early 2009 at age 57, he lost his fight with the disease.
Mary, now retired from her parallel career as a schoolteacher — she finished it at Grant Street Elementary in Port Townsend — continued growing Olympic Lavender; she continued greeting visitors from across the world. In the summers of 2009 and 2010, she donated all of the you-pick proceeds to Olympic Medical Center’s cancer-patient support fund.
After the 2009 Lavender Festival, Mary’s friend Judy Stevens gently broached the subject of dating.
“When you’re ready to go out, let me know,” she said. There was a man she hoped to introduce to Mary.
But that, Mary recalls, “was the last thing on my mind.”
She was busy working on the farm, though she saw friends now and again and worked out many mornings at the Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center.
Bruce Liebsch also liked to get to SARC’s cardiovascular training room early in the day. And he remembers, vividly, the day he saw Mary walk past.
“I was on the elliptical trainer. I saw her walking by, and I thought, boy, that’s a sharp-looking woman.
“I didn’t realize this was the person my neighbor wanted to fix me up with.”
His neighbor — Stevens — did make the introduction soon after that, as Bruce marveled to himself: “This is the same person I thought was so beautiful.”
He told this person, “I’d like to take you out to dinner some time — when you’re ready” and provided her with his phone numbers and email address.
As it turned out, Mary and a friend from Portland took Bruce out to breakfast in Sequim one fine morning. The friend “wanted to see who I was,” Bruce says. “And she grilled me. I was sweating bullets.”
And so the women learned: Bruce had been a police officer for 34 years in St. Louis before retiring to Sequim; he has a strong faith in God; he was married to his wife Sharon for 43 years before she died of cancer in January 2009.
Unlike Mary, Bruce had not even a blade of grass in his yard at the time.
Meanwhile, she had 4,000 lavender plants.
This difference didn’t deter them, however.
“We started going on little hikes,” Mary recalls, “and he just swept me off my feet.”
At this point, Mary steps outside her farm store and beckons Bruce to come in and talk to the reporter.
Just before he arrives in the doorway, Mary does an excellent impression of a youngster who’s just found Mr. Right.
“It’s so wonderful,” she says of their marriage, now 17 months old. “When he kissed me, there were just sparks. And there still are, after a year and a half.”
As Bruce and Mary gaze at each other inside the store, they remember one of their first dates: a walk along the bluff near Dungeness Spit. It was early in the morning, wisps of fog were wafting around them, “we held hands, and that was it,” Mary says.
She adds that she and Bruce have never had so much as a disagreement. And this is despite the learning curve he’s taken on as a lavender farmer and festival host.
“There’s a lot of give and take,” running a farm and a business together, Mary says. “He was thrown into something huge.”
Bruce, for his part, jokes that his career in policing kind of prepared him for the Lavender Festival.
Seriously, though: “It’s a peaceful setting out here,” with the doves cooing, the clouds drifting across the mountains, and the lavender’s color deepening day by day.
“I love the beauty of [the farm], and I enjoy meeting people from all over,” Bruce says.
The festival, adds Mary, “is a happy time.”
It’s the getting ready that can be stressful. There are food and art vendors to line up and musicians to book. And since this is an organic farm, there’s an infinite number of weeds to pull to prime the field for you-pick.
To add to all of this, the festival is different this year. Back in January, the venerable Sequim Lavender Growers Association split into two groups: one that kept the original name and the Sequim Lavender Farmers Association, of which Olympic Lavender Farm is a member.
On festival weekend, July 15-17, the new farmers’ association will host what’s now called the Lavender Farm Faire, “seven festivals in one faire,” according to its website, www.Sequim LavenderFarms.org. That means seven farms in and near Sequim will have music, crafts, tours and demonstrations all day for three days. And a brand-new event, “Lavender in the Park,” will be open at Sequim’s Carrie Blake Park, 202 N. Blake Ave.
Shuttle buses will ferry people among the farms on the tour, which include Olympic, Cedarbrook Lavender & Herb Farm, Purple Haze, Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm, Port Williams Lavender and a new addition, Washington Lavender at the George Washington Inn on Finn Hall Road.
The Jardin du Soleil farm north of town is back on the tour, too.
At the same time, the Sequim Lavender Growers Association will hold the Street Fair at its traditional location of Fir Street west of Sequim Avenue.
That free event also features vendors and live music on all three festival days.
The growers group has also organized a free farm tour, with Blackberry Forest, Martha Lane Lavender, Lost Mountain Lavender, Oliver’s Lavender Farm, Nelson’s Duck Pond and others listed at www.LavenderFestival.com.
Here’s how the festival works, according to Mary: the farmers and their hired workers scurry like crazy through the weeks leading up to it, making sure the food, drink and music is scheduled. Then, when festival Friday arrives, they get to breathe a collective sigh, just as the lavender lovers flow in, by bus, car and bicycle.
For years, Mary has heard the refrain: Your lavender is so fragrant . . . this place is so pretty . . . and then the people go walking among the rows, sometimes spending the whole afternoon choosing boughs for the perfect bouquet.
“They say it’s relaxing,” Mary adds, “especially if they’re from the city.”
During festival weekend, she and her guests enjoy the simple pleasures.
“I like the music,” Mary says, adding that for this festival weekend, she’s booked a variety: the Old Sidekicks from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; the Juanamarimba band from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday; country-folk singer Howly Slim from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday and the old-time band Jubilee on Saturday from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30.
“I love to watch people sit and relax and listen and have something to eat,” Mary says.
And for the third year in a row, Mary will donate the festival you-pick proceeds to Olympic Medical Cancer Center to help patients with travel and lodging expenses. The donation is in honor of Steve Borland and Sharon Liebsch.
Olympic Lavender has a particular personality that appeals to festival-goers, said Lavender Farm Faire director Scott Nagel, who has known Mary for about 10 years now. Mary, like the schoolteacher she was, runs something like a playground for grownups: a place to frolic, and even learn something about the lavender’s properties as a soother.
“From past festivals, we know where people go first to buy their tickets,” Nagel adds, “and Mary has at least 2,000 people who go to her farm first. When they come to town,” from Seattle or beyond, they go straight to Olympic, never mind that it’s nearly six miles from downtown Sequim.
“Each farm reflects the owner’s personality. You can just feel the spirit at her farm, and it’s really positive,” says Nagel. “That’s what people are looking for . . . Mary is very special.”
Lots more work lies ahead for Mary and Bruce in August, when harvest time comes. They bring in the bundles, distill the lavender oil and decant the herb into a plethora of products, from lotion, glycerin soap and body splashes to lavender lemonade mix and lavender pepper.
The couple knows how to follow up the busy season.
Last fall, they wasted no time before taking off on a series of trips. In September, they enjoyed a cruise to Alaska, and then they visited St. Louis and Phoenix to see family and friends. In February, around their first wedding anniversary, they went on another cruise, from San Diego to the Hawaiian islands.
This autumn, Mary and Bruce plan to list Olympic Lavender for sale. They’re ready to start yet another chapter together.
Bruce, having stepped out of the bright sun and into the store where Mary is surrounded by her handmade lavender gifts, sums up his new life.“We have been blessed, that’s all,” he says.