Couple transform Flat Top Mountain property into lavender farm
An unassuming West Richland lavender farm brims with purple and possibility as the owners dream well beyond U-pick bunches to becoming the largest lavender-cutting supplier in the state.
Terri and Steve Szendre operate SunKissed Lavender on Flat Top Mountain, off Collins Road, where they nurture 2,000 lavender plants, land once covered with weeds and sagebrush.
Their vision began simply: cover the space to reduce fire risk and maybe get a little lavender from the plants.
Now, “it’s all about the oil,” Terri said.
Her plants produce lavender oil, which the couple sells and infuses in beauty products, including lip balms, bath bombs, soaps, hand sanitizer, wax melts and more.
The Szendres also farm hundreds of culinary, or edible, lavender used as the base for Terri’s lavender cookie mix ($6), lemonade ($5) or iced tea ($3).
“This is like sugar. You could put it right into iced tea for a sweetener,” Steve said.
An equally big effort for the business is its lavender propagating, or cloning.
“It’s all science,” said Terri, who has got it down to a science. She estimates it takes her about 30 seconds to create a lavender starter, whipping through 72 plants in a single tray.
This year, she spent about two months working on lavender cuttings grown in a greenhouse to have the plants ready for sale by Mother’s Day.
While most people prefer to give mom a flowering lavender plant, Terri said the best success comes from plants not yet blooming.
“You’re selling the roots, that’s where the energy is,” she said.
The plants will bloom later in the summer, and as a perennial, they can return stronger each year.
“It took me about three years to learn how to do it,” she said.
The couple had their soil tested to confirm it would work for lavender.
Their West Richland property’s slope promotes good drainage for English and French varieties, including Grosso, Folate and Silver Frost, a white lavender bloom.
Terri found the Spanish lavender doesn’t work as well in the Tri-City climate.
She learned to cultivate lavender on a large scale from Victor Gonzalez, a lavender grower with a large farm in Sequim.
The Olympic Peninsula city is home to dozens of lavender farms and a yearly lavender festival the Szendres routinely visited.
Gonzalez brought 400 plants to the couple’s Flat Top property and taught the Szendres the tricks of the trade.
“But you don’t learn everything that way,” Terri said.
It was trial and error and Terri got the hang of it quickly, noting that nearly all of the 2,000 starters survived the winter to be eligible for sale in the spring.
The success invigorated her and inspires her goal to keep increasing the number of clones she produces yearly, with a target of 20,000 plants.
“I want to be one of the main cloners in the state,” she said.
The cuttings potted and sold the same year bring in $10 each, and the larger, second-season plants go for $30. Terri sold every pot she had available this year.
Harvest of SunKissed’s 13 varieties begins in mid-July and takes about a month, using a sickle to cut the blooms by hand in bunches.
“You grab it like a ponytail and whack it, keeping an eye on the blade,” Terri said.
To accomplish the daunting task of cutting, banding and drying the 2,000 plants at their West Richland property, Steve takes time away from his day job and their family helps. They also hire additional assistance.
Most of the lavender is run through a large copper still that separates the fat-and water-soluble parts of the plant.
The 45-minute steam distillation process handles about a dozen bunches at a time, creating about 4 gallons of pure lavender oil, along with a clear liquid byproduct called hydrosol.
Lavender oil has a multitude of uses, including in beauty products, for first aid and to relieve anxiety. Hydrosol doesn’t smell the same as lavender; it’s more floral and woodier. Its thin viscosity allows for it to be sprayed from a bottle, often as a facial spritzer or acne fighter. Terri uses it on her hair.
“What makes our oil so special is that it’s 100% Grosso variety, straight from the plant. There’s no carrier oil or blend, so it doesn’t stain,” she said.
The lavender used for culinary purposes must be cleaned of all dust and dirt without wetting it. It’s frozen to kill any microbes before it’s added to the cookie or drink mix packages, which consistently sell out as quickly as Terri can make them.
It also can be used to make a simple syrup for lavender-infused cocktails.
Terri used it at a wedding hosted on their property, one of many ways the farm has diversified.
The Szendres rent a 900-square-foot facility that comes with a commercial kitchen. They’ve hosted baby showers, birthday parties and recently a networking night offered by New York Life agent Erica Mata as a way to empower local women.
Mata first visited the farm to cut lavender and then rented the space for her sunset event that included wine tasting, oracle card readings, sage sales and a picturesque way to view the strawberry moon scheduled for the night.
The Szendres charge $100 an hour for the space, which allows private parties to enjoy an air-conditioned venue, patio and grounds.
For those who hope to go home with a bundle of lavender or take pictures amid the acres of purple flower clumps, the couple charges $5 for as much lavender as you can hold in your hand, and there’s no charge to use the lavender rows as a backdrop for pictures.
The Szendres tend to each plant after harvest, trimming it down to a ball so that it returns hearty and strong the following season.
“These guys work for me. They’re my babies,” Terri said.
SunKissed Lavender Farm adds about 400-500 plants each year, and the couple looks forward to lavender honey produced by commercial beehives located on the edge of the property.
SunKissed lavender products may be purchased online or from the farm, and the cookie and drink mixes also are available at the weekly farmers markets held from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Sundays at 3 Eyed Fish in Richland and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the Prosser Farmers Market.