Talking Lavender With Farmer Adrienne Ahnell
Lavender is one of nature’s most healing plants – known for its anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antidepressant, antiseptic, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties – which is why we’re psyched to introduce our first two entries into our new line of DIY Skincare Essentials: Lavender Essential Oil and Lavender Hydrosol.
These beautiful products – more of which you’ll learn about below – would not be possible without their incredible supplier, farmer Adrienne Ahnell. Read on for all about this California-based farmer’s life story, her gorgeous lavender, and how she finds peace on the farm.
How did you arrive at farming, and why did you choose Half Moon Bay as the location of your Farm?
I was a 20-year-old from the East Coast seeking an adventure, which led me to volunteer at an organic farm in Northern California. I discovered a community of farmers living their lives completely differently than mine: Living close to nature, consuming what was grown, and working long, glorious hours in the sun. We relaxed by stretching in the orchards or went swimming in the river.
My most vivid memory was working in the lavender patch. One day, while the crew was picking cherries, I spent an entire day harvesting flowers, alone. Having no experience in sitting quietly with myself, l ungracefully learned what it was like to meditate. Focusing on the flowers helped ease the endless chatter in my mind. By the end of the summer, I returned home with my soul nourished and ready to take on the world.
Photo: Kallie Koa
As I got back to my normal routine, I soon realized that buildings, not flowers, surrounded me. Yet whenever I was stressed, I would visualize lavender fields and feel complete. I sought out everything lavender-scented and discovered the power of lavender essential oil to turn any environment into a fragrant field of flowers. After college, I moved to California to pursue my career in farming. One day, a friend of mine took me for a “farm volunteer day” in Half Moon Bay. While I was working, I noticed a lavender field out of the corner of my eyes. I dropped what I was doing, ran straight up to the owner and blurted out with excitement, “This is it! This is what I am going to do. I am going to be a lavender farmer someday!” “How about today,” he said with a smile. Out of pure synchronicity, the farm was in need of new management. I took the opportunity and have managed the lavender farm on my own for the past five years.
What is it about lavender that has held your attention?
I used to think we as humans domesticated plants, but now I think lavender has domesticated me, in the same way that flowers provide bees with sweet nectar so that they will pollinate other flowers. Lavender has lured me in, intoxicated me, and convinced me to devote my life to it. Biologists call it a symbiotic relationship; I call it true love. What else gets me up at dawn, season after season, crawling on my hands and knees and tending to its every need? What else draws people from all over the world, buckling at their knees, crying out in joy, at the sight of this fragrant purple field? Lavender has had its way with me ever since I first laid eyes on it, and from what I’ve seen, I’m not the only one.
Image: Adrienne Ahnell
What makes the lavender you’re growing so special? What conditions are necessary to grow lavender and how do you care for your lavender field?
The lavender I grow is called Grosso, or in Latin, lavandula x intermedia. It has a deep, warm, and intoxicating scent. It’s special because it’s farmed using sustainable practices: I do not irrigate my plants, which saves thousands of gallons of water each year. To ensure the plants and consumers health, no chemical pesticides or fertilizers have ever been used. Lavender is a perennial, which holds in the topsoil and prevents erosion. It is also beneficial for honeybees, which love to drink its nectar.
Here the land, the plants, and the farmers are healthy. This relationship should always be examined when choosing an essential oil: Do you know the farmer? Caring for my lavender is like caring for myself. The plants need lots of sunshine, room to grow, nourishment, and a long winter’s rest.
Image: Adrienne Victoria
How do you create your lavender essential oils?
I spent many years learning about the complex process of large-scale essential oil distillation and it made my head swirl. Today I have a simpler equation: Lavender + Steam + Rapid Cooling = Lavender Essential Oil and Hydrosol. The process I use is steam distillation. My distillery is small enough to fit in the backseat of my car.
I wait until the lavender has bloomed three-fourths of the way to harvest it. This is when the essential oil is richest. I then pack the lavender into my copper still, which elevates the plant material over a boiling cauldron of water. At a certain temperature the oil glands burst and are carried upwards with the steam through a copper pipe. The pipe is then rapidly cooled to cause condensation to fall into the Mason jar below. At this point the essential oil rises to the top of the jar and separates from the hydrosol at the bottom. The two are then bottled and ready to use. Pure and simple, with nothing else added.
Image: Adrienne Ahnell, distillation process
What are some unique properties of lavender essential oil?
People are constantly falling asleep around me! It’s absolutely hilarious. Lavender is a known sedative, nerve tonic, and a natural cure for insomnia. Sometimes, I will be working and I stumble upon my volunteers sleeping in the field! Other times, people will ask me why they feel so relaxed and at ease and I have to remind them that they are sitting next to an open jar of essential oil.
Lavender is a natural antidepressant: it boosts your mood just by inhaling its scent. Not only is it a pain reliever, but it also helps with migraines and soothes sore muscles. Using it topically, it can heal minor cuts, scars, and bruises. It’s also been a blessing to people with acne or skin inflammation. During the seasonal changes, I use lavender essential oil to boost my immune system and ward off colds and respiratory infections. It also makes you smell great!
Image: Kallie Koa
What is most rewarding about what you do?
Lavender has connected me with so many people, I’ve gotten to a point where I just stand back and let it lead. It was the flower that my friend clung to as she gave birth; it was planted in a mother’s garden as a child; it was the oil that helped restore a friend back to health just when he was losing hope.
As more and more people use my essential oil, I get entangled into their web of experience. The more the essential oil travels with people, the less I feel the need to uproot myself and my flowers (I am a gypsy spirit at heart). People tell me I was there as they got off the airplane in Dubai, when opening the bottle in the hot air turned heads. I made it to the temples in Thailand, as they put a drop of it on their forehead before entering. I took a bath in Tunisia and I even stood by the Eiffel Tower.
It’s my little way of being everywhere at once while meditating in my field of flowers. If I can offer a tiny drop of peace in this wild world that we live in, then I’m doing my job.