Palisade Is Turning Purple
STEEP MOUNTAINS AND canyon walls hem in the Colorado River for its first 200 miles until it hits the Grand Valley, where the terrain finally levels out in an expansive vista of green farmland. Forming a natural gateway into the valley are Grand Mesa – the world’s largest flat-topped mountain – and Mount Garfield, an iconic butte that lies at the southern tip of the almost lunar-looking Book Cliffs. At the spot where the river flows between these two promontories into the valley is the town of Palisade.
The countryside surrounding this rural community of 2,600 is a tapestry of farms, orchards and vineyards, dotted everywhere with produce stands and wine-tasting rooms. Palisade seems to exist in a bucolic world of its own, making it easy to forget that the Western Slope’s metropolis, Grand Junction, lies just a few more miles downriver.
Palisade is justifiably proud of its bounty. It hosts a town festival in August honoring its famous peaches and another in September devoted to wine, but the festival on June 29-July 1, kicking off the harvest season, celebrates the aromatic newcomer that has become valley’s latest claim to agricultural fame – lavender.
SHORTLY AFTER DAYBREAK in the opening weeks of summer, Sage Creations Organic Farm owner Paola Legarre walks between rows of lavender plants, their silver-green leaves and light purple flower buds brushing by at hip level. Farm workers, careful to avoid the bees that crawl all over every plant, use small sickles to cut bunches of flower-studded stems. Within the tightly furled buds is the secret to the indescribably invigorating yet relaxing aroma that fills the air.
“The essential oils are in the flower buds,” Legarre said. “We harvest in the morning, because oils evaporate as the day goes on.”
Legarre is a font of tips like this, and her words carry a lot of weight with other local lavender farmers. No one has been growing lavender as a commercial crop on the Western Slope as long as she has, even though she’s only been at it 12 years.
The first of their two daughters was a baby when Legarre and her husband, Bobby Dery, moved to Palisade from California and started working the old cherry orchard they bought here. Already a skilled organic farmer with experience growing culinary herbs, she was looking for other crops to try out when the thought struck her: “I wonder how lavender would work here?”
It would make sense. After all, Palisades’ hot, dry climate and rocky soil had proven to be perfectly suited for wine grapes, and lavender is a perennial shrub native to that same Mediterranean climate. Legarre planted 40 plants the first year. Encouraged with the results, she planted more than a thousand the next year. Today, more than 15,000 lavender plants fill half of Sage Creations’ 10 acres.
Legarre’s daughters, Anna and Sophia, now help her mind the small farm shop where the family sells lavender in every possible form: fresh, dried, gathered into wreaths, and rendered into aromatherapy oils, soaps, lotions, lip balms and more. Buds are an increasingly popular ingredient for cooking, but most people seek out lavender purely for its aroma and the almost spiritual sense of calm it induces.
In the seasons following Legarre’s first lavender crop, fellow Western Slope farmers like Ron Rish of Cloud Terrace Farm in Palisade, Carol Schott of Lamborn Lavender in Paonia and others planted successful crops of their own. By 2009, a critical mass of lavender growers gathered to found the Lavender Association of Western Colorado to spread the good word among an agricultural community that still thought of lavender as little more than a Crayola color.
For the rest of the story see the May/June 2018 issue of Colorado Life.