As a breeze floats over the hill toward the waters of Quartermaster Harbor, blooming purple-hued plants sway rhythmically, wafting the scent of fresh lavender from the rows at Lavender Hill Farm.
Owner and farmer Cathy MacNeal said she takes pride in the creation of a relaxing presence.
“People walk into the field and say, ‘I could smell it from the street!’” she said. “People say, ‘You’re living the dream, you’re living in a dream!”
The farm opens for its 18th season Thursday, June 15, and welcomes visitors until July 23.
New this season
“The lavender is going to be ready … Any day now we’ll see the open blooms,” MacNeal said on a recent June morning. “There’s purple lavender, there’s pink lavender. It’s looking really, really good.”
This season, the farm has a new store manager, Dayna Dunne, who is in charge of inventory, merchandising and sales.
The organic farm grows approximately 800 plants ranging in 20 different varieties of French and English lavender. Last year’s late bloom created more inventory for this season — with goods such as dried lavender sachets, farm-made lavender essential oil and more.
U-cut lavender, lavender wreaths and lavender bunches are also available for purchase. For the third year, the farm also harvests lavender at Englewood Hill Farm, which is not open to the public, to sell at the local farmers markets, make bouquets, and to dry and distill oil.
“It doubles the amount of lavender and they have some varieties we don’t have, so that’s a great help.”
New this season, visitors have the opportunity to watch the essential oil distilling process at the farm. A new 20-gallon still was procured, thanks to a $9,450 grant from the Washington State Organic and Sustainable Farming Fund, sponsored by Tilth Alliance.
“Visitors who come to the farm and smell the difference, [they] test them and see which one they like best,” she said of the variety oils. “Because they’re not all the same.”
Double the size of the previous still, the new machinery takes about two hours to create about 8 ounces of oil, MacNeal said.
“When people see the process, they understand why that little bottle is $25,” MacNeal said. “It’s a very artisanal, hands-on process. … We do pretty much everything by hand.”
And those helping hands are eager volunteers who apply for the farm’s annual summer internship program.
Life in the lavender fields
Since its inception in 2009, the lavender farm’s internship program has hosted 42 interns from all over the world. They spend seven weeks on the Pacific Northwest gem of Vashon, learning about small business operations, and tending to and learning about the lavender.
“It’s been the biggest pleasure of doing this,” MacNeal said. Typically interns are college-aged students or graduated between the ages of 18 and 25. “I have this enormous cohort of six young people, Millennials to Gen Zers here, which keeps me attuned to what’s going on in the world … It’s been fun and wild.”
This year, the interns are Victoire Soumano, from Mali, who recently graduated from Westminster College in Salt Lake City and is pursuing her master’s degree in soil science at the University of Louisiana; Ava Lee from the Bay Area of California who is studying business analytics at Loyola University Chicago; Jeyli Castañon, from Guatemala, who is attending Cal State LA studying business economics; and Allyssa Anthony, from Salinas, California, who is attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo studying plant sciences.
The only year the farm went without out-of-area interns was 2020. Pandemic restrictions instead allowed MacNeal to welcome a team of local Vashon residents and recent grads to assist with the farm that summer, which proved to be one of their most successful seasons.
Though parks, most tourist attractions and stores were closed, the fields remained open and safe, MacNeal said. Health guidelines were followed closely and the farm became a go-to spot of beauty during a bleak time.
“The lavender business was great,” MacNeal said of the 2020 summer. “So much was closed … We were outside, we were masked and no one got sick. It was great to be able to offer that.”
Cathy MacNeal, New York City-born actor who lived in the Philadelphia suburbs and in Los Angeles, didn’t set out with visions of farm life in her future.
“It’s the last thing I would’ve expected,” said MacNeal, who is now a full-time Vashon resident. “I had zero interest in plants, the outdoors … I just wanted to be in the theatre. I was very much a city kid.”
When she moved to Los Angeles, she purchased a small house with a brown front yard and dozens of fruit trees in the backyard. Here, she began raising her kids and her gardens.
“That was the first place I planted lavender,” she said, noting the 15 Provence French Lavender plants that would survive amid the drought. “That was the beginning of the lavender journey.”
A friend who moved to Vashon Island a few years before told MacNeal that she should buy a small cabin on the island that had just gone up for sale, she said.
So, she did. MacNeal and her daughters began spending their summers on Vashon, experiencing their first lavender farm visit.
Just two years later, the farm was for sale. “I came here and said, ‘This is my dream,’” she said. “But it was one of those things you say off the cuff, like ‘I’d like to sail around the world.’”
When MacNeal and Tom Dalzell bought the lavender farm sight unseen in 2006 from the original lavender field planters, Gary and Theo Christman, her dream set sail.
Vashon was previously home to two additional lavender farms, The Lavender Sisters and Cindy Johnson of Fox Farm Lavender, along with a lavender festival. MacNeal also participated in the lavender festivals from 2007 to 2009.
After 2009, the other two farms decided to close. MacNeal and her family kept the farm open every day in the following summers, spending their summer months on Vashon and then heading back to Berkley after the season.
She became a full-time Vashon resident in 2019, after being a summertime resident since 2003.
Grown with love
On the brink of another lavender-laced summer, how does MacNeal determine what is a successful season?
“I gauge it mostly on my happiness,” she said. “My enjoyment, the enjoyment of the interns, how delighted the customers are. … Really it’s: How good does the lavender look? How good does the field look?”
MacNeal said one of her greatest delights is communicating with the visitors.
Visitors stream in from all over the state, country and world. There are couples, families with kids and babies and parents, people with their dogs in tow. Weddings, vacation rental goers, photoshoots and more.
MacNeal estimates 2,500 to 3,000 people have visited the farm and its freshest blooms each season for the past two years. While the farm opens for the season this week, MacNeal spent the last few weeks soaking up the serenity.
Before the interns rise for the day of work ahead and as the sun sweeps over Mount Rainier in the distance, she takes to the colorful rows.
“There’s an emotion I get when I go out to cut the first lavender of the season because it’s all pristine before anything is cut,” MacNeal said.
“I love going out and harvesting by myself in the early morning because it’s just me and the bees,” she said. Two hives at the farm, cared for by beekeeper David Skrzype, also help with the plants’ growth and develop “strong PNW queens,” she adds.
Though the plants have a timeline, Lavender Hill Farm is growing still.
What once was a little farm stand with a single jar for $5 lavender bundle payments is now a fully-staffed, half-acre farm.
“It’s just grown — this is really corny — in an organic way,” MacNeal said with a laugh.
During lavender season, the farm’s staff also has booths at the Proctor Farmers Market in Tacoma and at the Vashon Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Lavender Hill Farm is open Thursdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. from June 15 to July 23, including July 3 and 4. The farm is located at 10425 SW 238th St. Two rental properties are also available on the farm.
For more information about the Lavender Hill Farm and its summer happenings, visit lavenderhillvashon.com, @lavenderhillvashon on Instagram, or sign up for the weekly newsletter.