Love Thy Farmer: Hill Country Lavender
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Delicate stalks studded with small, soft purple petals shoot skyward from plump islands of slim green leaves and sway in a summer breeze. Thousands of these lavender plants, lined up in tidy rows, blanket a few acres on a hilltop right outside of Blanco, Texas, creating a picture that’s postcard-perfect. And yet, the scene is not what drew owner Tasha Brieger to Hill Country Lavender, the state’s oldest commercial lavender farm (started in 1999).
At age 16, Tasha went to work as a photo assistant to the farm’s then owner, who, in addition to growing the fragrant floral, was an award-winning photographer. She didn’t know anything about lavender. “I was there to learn about photography from Robb Kendrick,” she says. “That is what I wanted to do as a career.”
When she started with Robb, the lavender wasn’t blooming, but a few months later, the farm was awash in the plant’s namesake hue. Robb’s wife Jeannie Ralston had decided to open the fields to the public and allow visitors to cut lavender to take home. When the word got out, people showed up in droves, and Jeannie asked Tasha to help her manage it all. “It was a way to make a little extra money on the weekends,” Tasha says. “And all that lavender was just so lovely—so I did it.”
She never stopped. She began working exclusively with Jeannie on the farm, an arrangement that continued for years. When Tasha was in college, Robb and Jeannie took an extended trip to Mexico and left her in charge. When they decided to move to Mexico, Tasha thought her days on the farm were done. But instead of shutting it down, they decided to sell it, and they felt that Tasha was the natural fit to buy it. Only 22, she was unsure. “Robb kept telling me to buy it, and after about six months, he persuaded me,” she says. With the help of her parents and her boyfriend RG, who’s now her husband, she purchased the lavender farm in 2006.
In the 13 years since, her passion for lavender has blossomed. “It really caught me initially when I saw how much other people were interested, when the crowds came when Jeannie first opened the fields,” she says. “Now, I love how positive it all is, from the calming effects of the actual plant to how much people love what we’re doing. I love seeing people love our things.”
In addition to the live lavender, those “things” are multiple lavender products, from lotions to soaps and much more, all made at the farm. “People get so excited about them; they love the scent,” she says. “That’s not something I would have thought before I got into it. I used to associate the smell with my grandmother, but it’s got younger fans now too.”
The farm’s popularity continues to flourish, something that’s come as a sweet surprise to Tasha; she was unprepared for what it would grow to become under her and RG’s watchful eyes and hardworking hands. “Robb and Jeannie taught me a lot about marketing and promoting the business; they gave me a great foothold,” she says. “But I never knew it would be what it is. I thought it would be a side job, and that I would be photographer during the week. It has grown into more than I ever thought it would be.”
Today, the farm is both Tasha’s and RG’s full-time job. They tend seven varieties of lavender all year in preparation for the blooming season that starts in mid-May and usually runs into July. During the second full weekend each June, the Blanco Lavender Festival (that Robb and Jennie helped found) draws anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 people. Every other weekend in the season, hundreds of people visit the farm. They come to wander through the thousands of lavender plants and soak up their smells and sights, to cut some to take home, and to buy lavender plants that will add a pop of purple to their own gardens.
They also come to stock up on Hill Country Lavender farm’s aforementioned lavender products, all made onsite by Tasha and RG (and sold at the farm store, on their website, and at Brieger Pottery store in Blanco), harnessing the plant’s multi-faceted properties to relax, soothe, heal, and even repel pests. “Scorpions don’t like lavender, so here in Texas, where they can be an issue, that’s a real plus,” Tasha says. Most of the products are based on lavender oil, but a few use the buds. All are as natural as possible, from a lavender-peppermint foot cream to a lavender-citrus stress-relieving mist to a lavender-fueled “bug be gone” spray.
The product line also includes edible treats that incorporate lavender’s subtle but aromatic flavor, treats such as lavender-blackberry ice cream, lavender-lemon shortbread cookies, lavender lemonade, and lavender bud-infused sugar. “Lavender is really great mixed with citrus or chocolate,” says Tasha. “But too much can taste like soap, so you have to be careful with it.”
The Briegers have been careful to strike the right balance in their products, as well as in their division of duties. “RG mixes and packages, and I do the labeling and marketing,” Tasha says. When they don’t have enough home grown lavender to meet demand for the products, they use lavender from other Texas farms.
While the work on the farm is year-round—harvesting at the end of blooming season, putting new plants in the ground each fall, watering and watching, welcoming visitors, teaching lavender growing seminars, and making and selling the farm’s myriad products—every aspect is one Tasha enjoys. And each summer, when the lavender hits its peak, she’s awestruck again. “It is truly one of the prettiest things you will ever see,” she says. “It’s like a little piece of paradise.”