Although many farmers inherit an early generational connection to the land, some, like Edgar and Martine Anderson, join the agricultural community later in life. When the Andersons visited friends on Washington Island, WI, they fell in love with the area. After returning to their home in Chicago, they made the decision to retire and move to the island, purchasing and remodeling a home. Soon after they settled into their new life, Martine became concerned about the steady economic decline and lack of employment opportunities in the somewhat remote community.

Raised in the Provence region of France, Martine had fond memories of the fragrant lavender fields that surrounded her childhood home and considered the possibility of growing the plants in her new surroundings. She approached the locals about the idea of creating a lavender farm on the island, but few thought it would work. Martine was not one to be deterred and discussed the possibility of a lavender farm with Edgar. He first wanted to see if this was a feasible pursuit and set about investigating the area to see if it was a suitable environment for the plants. Using his extensive knowledge acquired as head of global construction, engineering and procurement of the McDonald Corporation, he studied the island’s weather patterns and soil, researched the best varieties for their growing zone and planted test gardens at their new home. The plants thrived under Edgar’s care and the decision was made to create Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm.

Like a lot of ag-based businesses, Edgar and Martine still do a lot of the work themselves, but also employ many locals for help with their seasonal crowds and day-to-day operations. From its humble beginnings in the Andersons’ home gardens, Fragrant Isle has grown into the Midwest’s largest lavender farm and is the Midwest’s “premier lavender agritourism destination.”

Comprising 21.7 acres, the farm has 20,000 lavender plants of 12 different varieties. Fragrant Isle grows both aromatic and culinary lavender – all English varieties which are hardiest for Zone 5B. Edgar recommended the following Lavandula angustifolia varieties, commonly known as English lavenders – Hidcote, Munstead or Melissa – for Midwest growers. “While there are over 400 varieties of lavender grown around the world,” Edgar said, “the English varieties will give you the greatest chance of success.”

Martine Anderson on the patio holding a bottle of Fragrant Isle’s signature simple syrup made from the farm’s lavender. Photo by Tamra Bolton

Lavender is an herb belonging to the mint family, along with rosemary, basil, thyme and others. It has a slightly sweet taste with floral undertones. Culinary lavenders can be used in countless ways in the kitchen, making baked goods as well as main dishes extra special.

The Andersons use no pesticides or herbicides on their farm, as lavender is very resistant to pest infestations and is also drought tolerant, which helps the plants thrive in most conditions. Their plants are maintained with weeding by hand, hand-trimming and with a special machine designed by Edgar that carefully trims the buds while preserving the rounded growth shape of the plants. Lavender needs protection from the sometimes harsh Wisconsin winter weather, so every autumn the plants are prepared and covered with overwintering row protectors. It’s a labor-intensive job, requiring care so as not to damage the plants.

The Andersons use a special distilling process to extract therapeutic grade essential oil from the lavender buds and blooms, which is the highest grade recognized by the essential oil Industry. A custom-made distilling machine from Portugal does the natural process in 110 minutes per batch. Visitors to the farm enjoy observing the steam distillation of the freshly cut lavender in the artisan handmade copper stills while learning about the cultivation, harvesting and processing of Fragrant Isles’ many types of lavender.

Fragrant Isle not only sells dozens of culinary products using their lavender, but they have a large selection of essential oil products in their on-site shop “All Things Lavender.” Martine enjoys overseeing the retail shop where customers can enjoy browsing the artfully arranged products – a breathtaking display which gives a nod to Martine’s past experience in haute couture retail with Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

Wafting over the shop from Le Café, their bakery and bistro, is the delicious aroma of freshly-baked croissants and lavender cookies. The bakery also offers authentic French baguettes and a selection of gourmet lavender goodies which visitors can enjoy at their indoor café setting or on an outdoor patio overlooking the lavender fields. For a special treat, they also offer signature drinks using lavender, such as their mimosas and cocktails. They also have their own wine and craft beer selections to tempt taste buds.

What started as an intriguing idea has turned into a successful farming venture for Edgar and Martine Anderson. Joining the world of agriculture has been both rewarding and challenging for this retired couple. The farm also benefits the island community they have grown to love.

by Tamra Bolton