Our story begins in the South Island of New Zealand, a land of big skies, vast grasslands, snow capped mountain ranges, glacial lakes, rivers, and extreme weather.
Strong winds, fierce sunshine, snow and ice, colourful autumns and unexpected crispy cool days make up the volatile climate, and are one of the reasons New Zealand Alpine Lavender is so potent and unique, winning accolades due to the strength and quality of its first harvest.
The story of how our lavender came into creation is not an easy one, but a labor of love, built from the ground up by two men and their families on the strength of their hard work, dreams and determination to succeed.
Born from the vision of Allan Tibby and skill set of Blake Foster, the story begins in February 2009, when Allan approached the leading authority in New Zealand about growing organic lavender.
From a friendship spanning decades, Blake was inspired by Allan’s lavender dream. Blake believed his practical skills would form the perfect partnership with Allan, the visionary. Both had certainty that there was a future in organic lavender farming and were excited about the idea of creating such a pure product.
As Blake explained, “It was like the two pieces of the jigsaw coming together perfectly. Now it was a matter of making it happen.”
They both saw the tremendous potential of providing a unique experience to the visitors of New Zealand as well as the locals. Their desire to offer the highest quality organic lavender products that could truly claim to be clean and green spurred them forward, despite the many trials and tribulations that would occur, resulting in the New Zealand Alpine Lavender Farm being the largest organic farm in the southern hemisphere, certified by Biogro NZ, recognized throughout NZ and the world as the country’s leading organic certifier.
Rounding a bend in the road to New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook/Aoraki, situated 600 meters above sea level and nestled under the majestic Ben Oahu mountain range, lies our lavender farm, fitting in nicely with the ever-changing colours of the landscape -- mountains dusted with snow, the turquoise glacial Lake Pukaki, vast swathes of golden tussock and the tawny hills and downs.
After the decision was made to develop an organic lavender farm, Blake spent six months extensively researching in 2009 to come up with a project plan. In his research, Blake met with other lavender farmers in New Zealand and Tasmania. Then, in 2013, he went to Bulgaria, France and the UK. He volunteered on some farms to gain experience and understanding about what the plants required to thrive.
Blake also took professional advice from the leading oil expert in NZ, who has been an essential part of the team.
In Spring 2009, the trial plot was established, consisting of 600 plants of three different lavender varieties. While Blake was not without doubts, he saw the project as an incredibly unique opportunity for himself, Allan, and their families to be involved in, especially considering the grand scale of the project.
By September 2010, Allan and Blake were ready to break in 11 acres of a total of 46 acres, with a further 7 acres the following year. The grassy stony farmland has porous earth, and in some areas had more rocks per square meters than soil. Blake clearly had his work cut out for him, especially since no one had ever done this before in our alpine environment, so there was no blueprint to follow. He was on his own in finding the right machinery and contractors to break in the land and clear out the rocks and stones.
Blake borrowed a tractor and a grubber and set about cultivating the field, with the assistance later of hired contractors. They removed piles of rocks, piling them into trailers and making huge piles. It was painstaking, backbreaking work, even with the assistance of family members, friends and visitors. Some contractors even came but quickly left, saying the rocks were too much for them and the worst they had ever seen. As it became obvious there was an endless sea of rocks below the surface, it became clear to Blake that he would need another method.
After conducting more research, he found the Spikes Rotor, an impressive machine with a unique spike design that could drive the stones into the ground and at the same time leave the good earth on the surface. This now meant Blake could start forming the land into usable beds of stone free ground. However, there was still one big problem: the giant rock in the middle of the field that was too big for any machine to remove. Despite blowing it up twice with the modern day equivalent of dynamite, the rock wouldn’t budge, and was barely reduced from it’s initial 6 metres (approx. 20 feet). Blake decided to let it be and created a small hill over it. The rock can still be seen today in the field -- the rock that couldn’t be moved!
Planting & Growing
Blake knew that rabbits and hares would be a problem, because rabbits love soft, green, tasty plants, so he got ahead of the problem by hiring a local fencer to enclose the perimeter of the field prior to planting.
Next came making the rows. Blake had no idea how to make the rows straight. After consulting with experienced tractor drivers, he and his wife Jackie came up with a plan of her holding a steel pole in the distance and he attaching a rod to the tractor.
Because they needed pinpoint accuracy, it was next to impossible to keep the rows perfectly straight, as the slightest wobble of the tractor would accentuate the movement of the attached implement. They tried to have outriggers off the side of the tractor to scratch a line for the next row, and they tried having string lines for the tractor to follow, but nothing worked.
Blake finally discovered RTK (Real Time Kinetics}, GPS tractors which are accurate within half to 3/4 of an inch. Blake rented one, and finally was able to create perfectly straight rows, solving his problem. New Zealand Alpine Lavender now has its own tractor with RTK GPS functions, making the work not only less labor intensive, but enabling work that would be impossible to perform without it.
The lavender plants needed to be ordered seven months ahead of planting. We knew angustifolias were the best to grow at our altitude. So where were we to find a nursery to grow 37,000 plants? Blake chose to work with three nurseries, growing 2000 avice hill, and 25,000 pacific blue varieties.
He then procured a bed layer and a planting machine from the United States that can plant on average 800 plants per hour. Both the bed layer and the planter are pulled behind the tractor. In one simultaneous motion, the bed layer forms a new bed, covers it with weed matting and pulls soil on to the edges of the matting to hold it in place. The planting machine then burns a hole in the weed matting, placing the lavender plant into the hole, before finally firming the ground around it and watering it, plant after plant.
The matting wasn’t without it’s own problems, however. One day, blustering winds from the mountains came seemingly out of nowhere. That morning, Blake got a call from a neighbor who told him that a length of weed matting was strewn across the state highway into the next field. Calling on extra help, he discovered that an entire row of weed matting (800 ft) had blown across the road.
After the weed matting was reclaimed, the next question was how to keep it all down. Blake conceived of a solution where wire was stretched across the beds every 80 feet, held down by two metal pins. Working systematically, family and friends scattered across the rows, pinning down the weed matting, taking about a week to secure it all. Laborious work, but just another day in the High Country!
The Farmer’s Plight — Weeds
The choice to be a certified organic farm simply added to the obstacles of the New Zealand Alpine Lavender farm. Most regular farmers deal with their weed problems using herbicides. Blake knew that it was critical to hand weed around the lavender plants to enable them to grow big enough to shade out any future growth of weeds. This was an ongoing procedure for Blake, Jackie, and their helpers, who did it the old-fashioned way on their knees, giving the little lavender plants breathing room.
Along the edge of the weed matting, weeds grew prolifically. Hand weeding was not an option, so Blake tried inter-row cultivation using the tractor GPS, harrows, and a rotary hoe, but the weed matting edge would end up getting damaged, or dirt would be thrown onto the weed matting regardless of how carefully these were applied. As there is 54 miles of weed matting edge, Blake needed to come up with a solution.
He had to research and look at the most effective way to eradicate these pesky weeds without damaging the plants, and as well as retaining organic status. He eventually found a system using steam. He initially purchased a steam weeder from Australia that had been used by local councils for weed control where herbicides were not an option. Blake went over to learn this new technique. He modified this system to be more efficient and then purchased a second machine.
Blake built a platform on the back of the water tank, on the tractor, and custom designed a hydraulic system that works the steamers rotating on the back, hissing and blasting hot jets of steam onto the sides of each row of weeds. The swirling brushes of the steam jets debilitate the weeds and also warm the roots of the plants.
Using certified organic products every step of the way, Blake sourced and found a locally made seaweed product that he sprays on the lavender periodically. In order to help plant growth and maintain healthy root systems by building and maintaining carbon storage in the soil, he introduced a mycorrhizal fungus that greatly enhances the plants resistance to disease.
The Foe Named Frost
The first year 2012, the small plants did not get affected too badly by frost, but the second year was a different story. Large areas of newly planted lavender were affected. Thinking this might not be the norm, Blake took a chance, hoping that the following year, the worst had passed -- only to experience that a series of frost events over the year affected two-thirds of the plants by stunting their growth in some areas, and by burning the newly formed buds in other areas.
The biggest blow came in January 2014; 99,000 plants with their flower heads were wiped out. Instead of rows of delicate purple heads fluttering across the vast area, there was only drooping, blighted plants suffering from frost and darkened by bruising. All the hard work, time and energy that Blake, Jackie and all the people involved had spent was lost.
Once again, Blake set out researching the best solution to remedy the situation. He called in a frost consultant, who after his research determined there was a warm layer of air above the field on frost nights. On frost nights, cold air settles in lower areas while the warm air of the day rises. He said that we had the highest warm air inversion in NZ at 15 m. He suggested a wind machine would bring this warm air down to the ground.
Despite the many difficulties and hard work devoted to the farm, it is now the only organic lavender farm one will find in the Southern hemisphere at the altitude of 600 meters or 1,968 ft. Allan and Blake maintain that this is the reason their lavender oil is some of the purest and most potent in New Zealand.
Blake is now an executive of NZ Lavender Growers Association and a judge in the association’s oil awards.
It is through all these trials and tribulations and sheer hard work that have brought Blake, Jackie, Allan, and all their friends and helpers to the point where they can proudly say, “It has all been worth it!”