When people think of Wisconsin, the image of a dairy farm often comes to mind.
But if you go to Washington Island, there is a farm that looks — and smells — a bit different. For the past four years, Fragrant Isle on Washington Island has been growing its own lavender for sale and use in the creation of other products.
The scent of inspiration came from doing some early retirement flower gardening.
“I planted lavender around my house here on Washington Island and fell in love with it,” says Martine Anderson, vice president of retail and wholesale for Fragrant Isle. “I told my husband that we should plant lavender for a business, and at first he told me I was crazy.”
Anderson, originally from southern France, moved to the states when she was 28 to work for Saks 5th Avenue. Before coming to Washington Island, she and her husband Edgar, also an owner of Fragrant Isle, worked in the everyday hustle and bustle of Chicago. The couple moved to Washington Island to begin enjoying an early retirement, but a new plan soon blossomed.
“We wanted to create a place on Washington Island that will attract more people and make them stay,” Martine Anderson says. “What sets us apart in terms of a smaller business is we wanted to create jobs for the residents here and to strengthen tourism all year round.”
Currently, the lavender farm is 21 acres, seven of which are cultivated with 14,000 plants. The plan for the next few years is to increase the farm’s size to 35,000 plants. The business, much like its cash crop, has taken to the soil quite well; revenues increased 80 percent this year.
“It’s a very viable business, but the key is to do accurate planning and to do everything right the first time,” Anderson says. She and her husband conducted a year of research and planning before opening the farm. Anderson says soil for lavender must be porous so water can drain easily and not get the roots too wet.
Another distinguishing aspect of the farm is that all the cultivation is currently done by hand. A difficulty they run into is trying to find manual labor, Anderson says, but as the business grows, they are prepared to mechanize some of the operations to keep up with the plants.
“When we reach our goal of planting 35,000 plants, we will plan to mechanize the farm and buy machines to help maintain and harvest the lavender,” Anderson says.
The business relies heavily on the help of volunteers. Anderson says the support local residents and visitors show by rolling up their sleeves and volunteering to help weed, cultivate and harvest the lavender is an aspect they love the most about the island.
Fragrant Isle has 13 employees, most of whom reside on the island.
In July, the farm hosted its first Lavender Festival. Hundreds of visitors flocked to the island to get up close with the lavender and learn how to cook with it as well as how to grow their own. Visitors even had the chance to sample foods including ice cream and chocolates, all infused with lavender.
When the cold wrath of Mother Nature hits Wisconsin, it does not stop the leadership team of Fragrant Isle. In the winter months, the online store stays open for customers to buy products, and Anderson says winter is the best time to plan for the next season.
“The business is technically seasonal, since we run April through September,” Anderson says. “We take advantage of the winter months to prepare for the next season and to plan our strategies and different events.”
The store at Fragrant Isle offers more than just lavender bundles for customers to buy. More than 120 products are offered with Fragrant Isle’s logo on them. The company prides itself on carrying all-natural products infused with the lavender grown on the farm, like soap, lotions and even food.
Employees say customers are most curious about what food can be prepared with lavender.
“The best part of my job is seeing the look on people’s faces when I tell them they can actually cook with lavender,” says Julie Imig, marketing director for Fragrant Isle. “Lavender is a lot more than just a fragrance and people do not realize what it can do for certain foods.”
When lavender is used in cooking, it brings out other spices and flavors that are added to the dish, Imig says. The shop even has a café where customers can purchase ice cream, pastries and chocolates infused with lavender, while enjoying the scenery and atmosphere of the farm.
Anderson’s simple but unique idea of growing lavender brings a new type of product to the state’s soil. Another attribute that has customers coming back is the fact that everything is grown locally.
“I have not encountered another farm like ours in Wisconsin because not a lot of people think to plant lavender in this type of climate,” Anderson says. She also says that the clean and pure product they sell allows customers to buy their products with confidence.
At a Glance:
Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm
1350 Airport Rd.
Washington Island, WI 54246