The Lavender Project

La Colorada Mexico

Since 2006 SAA has been working in the small community of La Colorada, Guanajuato, Mexico, an extremely rural area with a population of about 900 living on vast fields of once rich farmland, parched by the sun and baked by years of drought. This community is struggling to survive with few paths out of poverty other than the road north across the treacherous border to an unknown future in the USA.

In an effort to create local opportunities in La Colorada, St. Anthony’s Alliance has partnered with the local community using the natural resources available and building on the skills already present in the community. This collaborative effort has led to the development of a social enterprise based around a lavender farm in the heart of La Colorada and a partnership with Esperanza de Joaquin to support the community centre there.

The Lavender Project, Mexico

This project both respects the agricultural history of the area and provides a new source of gainful employment for the people of the community of La Colorada. For St. Anthony’s Alliance, a long term goal is to reduce migration from the area and provide opportunities for the remaining families through the economic and community development of the area. The vision of the project is cooperation rather than separation.

Project History:

Following an initial visit to La Colorada, the board of St. Anthony’s – particularly Teresa Balcomb, put their minds to finding solutions to some of the challenges facing the community. Lavender seemed like the perfect value-added crop for this tiny village in Mexico except for a few minor details. No one had ever grown it, no one knew where we could purchase plants in Mexico in quantity and few farmers were left in the village to tend it should we be able to surmount the first two problems. Worst of all, there was no water.

The lack of water was our first and biggest obstacle. Even though lavender doesn’t need anything like the amount of water that other crops need, new rooting plants especially need a steady source of water. In the spring of 2006, St. Anthony’s Alliance entered into a 5-year collaborative agreement with a group of 8 farmers whose irrigation pump had been broken for several years. We would buy them a new pump and in exchange they would plant one hectare (about 2.2 acres) of lavender and also plant soybeans for the local soy kitchen school program. $15,000 dollars later and only a few short weeks and water was flowing again, in time for the farmers to plant their corn, beans, alfalfa and soybeans.

Our project was funded initially by a generous “seed” grant from Stephen Tryon of Overstock.com. In February 2006, St. Anthony’s Board member, Teresa Balcomb attended the 2nd Annual Southwest Lavender Conference in Fredericksburg, Texas with Maria Martinez, a representative from La Colorada. It was at this conference that Teresa met Al and Peggy Armstrong of Valley View Lavender Farm in Buhl, Idaho. They volunteered to host an intern farmer from the village and teach him the trade. With the help of Worldwide Farmers Exchange we were able to get a temporary J-1worker’s visa for Aucencio Domenzain to spend the summer working and learning all aspects of lavender production.

Aucencio, a true self starter, returned from Idaho totally energized about the incredible possibilities lavender posited. With no formal training in business or computers he wrote a manual in Spanish about how to grow lavender and some of its uses. St. Anthony’s published his manual in booklet form. Armed with his booklet and his newfound knowledge and his own native farming and business sense, he wrote a grant for assistance in starting their small business enterprise to the Business Incubators program at The Universidad Technologica del Norte Guanajuato (UTNG). After working on the business plan under the guidance of Director Andres Casillas Barajas and his staff at the business program, Azul Lavanda was born.  The UTNG provided some technical support but they are not a funding organization. For funding, Aucencio and Azul Lavanda have appealed to the Presidencia de Dolores Hidalgo, the equivalent of the city government of the local municipality. The Presidencia agreed to a remarkable 80/20 funding of Azul Lavanda’s initial proposal for drip irrigation for the lavender, a warehouse in which to harvest and process the plants as well as a nursery to root foundling plants, and a distillation unit for extracting the valuable lavender oil.

St. Anthony’s has had a hand in all of this, thanks to the incredible generosity of our supporters. In November of 2006, Teresa Balcomb and Aucencio Domenzain struck a deal with the only nursery we could find that had lavender in quantity in the State of Puebla, Mexico. Most varieties of lavender are hybrids and grow only from cuttings not from seed. By March of the next year we had transplanted our first 500 cuttings of the Provence into 4 inch pots so they could triple in size. In May, with the help of 15 volunteers from North Texas State University, the villagers had their first lavender in the ground! More incredibly, the climate was perfect, just as we had suspected, and by July 2007 we had our first lavender harvest. For anyone who knows about growing lavender, plants normally take 2 years to root before they can typically be harvested for flowers or oil so a harvest our first year was a gift!

By May 2006 we received our second 500 plants of the Grosso variety, prized for its wonderful oil. Under the farmers expert care the tiny cuttings were ready for planting in the fall. Not one single plant has died. Moreover, given the remarkable growth of the plants the farmers have already begun their own nursery, rooting their own stock in order to triple the size of their fields by 2008. With any luck at all, not only will the village never have to purchase another lavender plant, they are now positioned to become Mexico’s leading supplier of the plants.

With such a meteoric pace the farmers were in desperate need of a workspace. In November of 2007 St. Anthony’s provided $3500 for the construction of the new Azul Lavanda Bodega, a small warehouse, built entirely by the local farmers. Luckily, the money from St. Anthony’s will be counted as Azul Lavanda’s 20% contribution in the 80/20 match from the Presidencia so that the local government can underwrite much of the rest of the funding for the entire project.

What is the future for our field of dreams? The farmers hope to have 5000 plants under cultivation within 2 years. If all goes well they can begin sale of nursery plants this summer for landscaping. Azul Lavanda began producing its own organic lavender oil by summer of 2008. The farm is a source for fresh cut lavender flowers for local markets and dried lavender flowers and buds year round. Men, women, and children have learned to make lavender wands, sachets and wreaths for sale in local markets providing an immediate source of income when the flowers are in bloom. When sold at local markets, the flowers become their own exquisite advertising.

Latest News 2012:

Jim, Teresa and Ruth travelled to Rancho La Colorada, Mexico in January 2012 to check in with the hard working teams in The Lavender Project and La Colorada Community Centre. The community had completed lots of planning and reviewing before the visit and identified some key achievements and more important-ly new goals for the future.

Some of the achievements for 2011 included the development of a new inventory room, which makes keeping track of stock and responding to orders from over 70 customers of The Lavender Project much easier. The team has also been working on new systems and procedures to ensure a safe and productive working environment. New land has been brought under crop and Aucencio has been successful in getting a small grant which will go to-wards drip irrigation and new cutters. Some very exciting news, is that a local chemistry researcher, has verified that the oil being produced in The Lavender Project is of a very high quality and matches the quality of oil being produced all over the world.

For 2012 the project is working on sales and marketing strategies and the goals for 2012 are ambitious but it has been recognised by all involved that they have to be if the project is to become self-sustaining by 2015.  The future seems a bit brighter for this once parched village. With the potential for a new economy based on a sound, sustainable form of agriculture, women, who had no visible means of income, may now be able to make a living and men who heretofore often had to seek any kind of menial work in the United States may be able to remain at home as contributing members of their community. St Anthony’s, through your incredible generosity, has lent its green thumb to this process. In no small measure, the slow, but steady transformation of this village has been and will continue to be a self-sustaining field of dreams.

Interview with Lee Gentry, Project Coordinator The Lavender Project

Lee Gentry joined The Lavender Project Team as a St. Anthony’s Project Coordinator in late 2010 bringing huge experience in the area of education and a great energy in developing the project. Originally from South Carolina, she went to Mexico to improve her Spanish and seek new personal growth opportunities.

In an interview with our director Ruth Shortall, she recently told us “What has surprised me most about the Lavender Project is the reflection I see in all of these men and women. The things I am teaching them and guiding them to do are my own life lessons.   Everywhere you look, beautiful things are being created from all forms of art, organizations being created and supported one after another supporting the Mexican community all with the theme of empowering the locals and creating a sustainable life here.

Every day that I drive one hour to work ending on that washboard road  in La Colorada I see Lucia’s confidence growing visibly. And Lupe’s fairness, Angelina’s wisdom, Elizabeth’s determination, Esther’s guidance, Lilia’s creativity, Beatriz’ leadership, Aucencio’s ambition, Rosa Maria’s smile, Paola’s smile and ability to speak in something I think is Spanish and somehow we communicate.  Pedro teaching me to use a jos to cut the fresh lavender.  Elizabeth’s head on my shoulder that lets me know …We are ALL in it TOGETHER.  The truth is that we are and together is the only way in order to move adelante!

There is a magic in what empowerment can do to give one an opportunity for a better life.  We are creating a model for other rural communities in Mexico and outside of Mexico.

I want others knew how much support and guidance is needed in order to bring a project such as this one to sustainabilityIt isn’t a part time project; therefore, full time consultants are essential in order to reach St. Anthony’s 5 year goal of sustainability.

Knowing that I can make the change I want to see in the world by loving, connecting, educating, learning with and from others is what motivates me to keep going.”