In the heart of Chester County, there’s a little piece of Provençe, France—thanks to sisters Amy Saha and Joanne Voelcker. On their 42-acre Wagontown farm, some 1,200 lavender plants flourish. In the warm months, those fields are abuzz with bees and butterflies flitting from plant to plant, drunk on the heady scent the flowers release as they sway in the breeze.
Creating and maintaining such an idyll has been no small feat. Saha and Voelcker’s Mt Airy Lavender has required years of dedication and hard work.
Their parents bought the farm in 1971, moving the family from Media to the homestead just outside Coatesville. With love and care, its rundown 48 acres began to thrive. Years later, in 1991, the city of Coatesville tried to build on the property, claiming eminent domain. After a six-year legal battle, the family won, losing just six acres in the process. As their parents aged, preserving the land they fought so hard to protect became more and more important to the sisters. They couldn’t bear to see it sold.
Over the years, Saha and Voelcker built their own homes on the farm to be near their parents. The houses sit on either side of a long, shaded driveway that wends by pastures where horses can be seen cropping the grass. One lavender field is right behind Voelcker’s home. She began planting it in 2012, a year after she and her husband returned from a five-year stay in Brussels. “I worked and lived over there,” says Voelcker, the former head of client insight and marketing technology at Vanguard. “I got a chance to visit the South of France, and I just fell in love with the lavender.”
Voelcker started with 500 plants. There are now 1,200. “The first year we were harvesting it, I was like, ‘What the heck are we going to do with all of this?’” she recalls.
Soon, Saha became involved. A biochemist for West Pharmaceuticals, she wanted to do something with the plants. So they installed a still to turn the lavender into oil and lavender water. As an essential oil, lavender has many uses. Voelcker believes in it so much that she’s getting her certification in aromatherapy.
“[Lavender] is such a powerhouse of an oil,” says Venessa Levin, a registered aromatherapist who practices at Grateful Aromatics in West Chester and Mariano Holistic Life Center in Malvern. “It actually does a lot more than just smell nice. It has antiseptic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, so it can help soothe burns, scrapes and insect bites.”
Levin also notes that lavender can help reduce anxiety and stress, and aid with insomnia for some. “It helps so many parts of a person,” she says.
To harness those properties and share them with others, Saha and Voelcker established Mt Airy Lavender in 2015. Knowing nothing about lavender farming when they began, they learned as they went along, relying on organizations like the United States Lavender Growers Association, of which they’re members. To create the oil, they pick the buds from the plants—usually in May or June—then pack them onto a mesh grill in the still, using heat and water to create steam. As the distillation cools, they separate the oil and the lavender water (hydrosol). “A lot of cosmetic companies use that hydrosol for toners and a makeup base,” says Saha. “We sell [the oil] straight [and add it] to different products, like lotions.”
Distilling the lavender fresh from the fields can prove tricky for just two people. Each batch takes about two hours and yields just 50 milliliters of oil. “That’s why it’s so expensive, because there’s so much flower that goes into making just a little bit of [oil],” says Voelcker.
Fortunately, the water has a much larger yield, so they sell it as a spray. “It can be a good face toner—it’s calming, it repels insects,” Voelcker says.
“It’s great if you have sunburn, or if you need to soothe skin or burns,” adds Levin, who makes frequent use of hydrosol.
Business is thriving at Mt Airy Lavender. “Each year we expand a little bit,” says Saha.
Their products are so popular, in fact, that last year they ran out of oil. “It’s a craft product we’re making,” says Saha, who stresses their focus on organic production—though they’re not yet organic certified.
The plants themselves require a suitable environment in which to grow. “They need a lot of sun, and they don’t like a lot of wet,” says Voelcker, who had to create small hills for proper drainage. “The best conditions for lavender are high altitude on a hill. They’re similar to grapes for wine, in terms of what they like.”
While summer is prime time for harvesting, lavender farming demands a year-round commitment. When the harvesting and distilling finishes in October, Saha and Voelcker order any new plants needed for the following year. Care continues into winter, when Voelcker installs snow fencing to help protect the plants. Despite her efforts, the weather can take a toll. “In the six years I’ve had the lavender, I’ve had three good winters and three bad winters,” she says. “In the bad winters, I’ve had to replace hundreds of plants.”
Come spring, it’s all about pruning in preparation for blooming season. “If you don’t prune them regularly, they get woody—and the wood tends to get rotted,” Voelcker says.
What lavender they can’t manage to distill during summer, they hang to dry in their barn. Its walls are lined with dozens of nails on strips of wood, separated at even intervals.
In total, the sisters have seven different lavender varieties on the farm. Each has a distinct flower—some purple, some blue— and bloom at different times. Varieties include Grosso, Provençe, Phenomenal, Hidcote and Munstead, and they’re also growing a white lavender called Elegance. “The English lavender is the richer color— it’s better for crafts,” says Saha. “The French is better for essential oils.”
Lavender is also cropping up in the culinary arts. It’s something the two have been experimenting with. Voelcker uses the English Buena Vista variety for ice cream and mojitos. Elsewhere on the farm, they’ve planted cutting flowers, sunflowers and vegetables.
Ultimately, though, it’s all about that first lavender field. In the center of it, a pergola with purple bench swings provides a focal point and the perfect spot to unwind. It’s where Mt Airy Lavender hosts yoga, workshops and the occasional wedding. Like the farm itself, the pergola is a peaceful respite in an unexpected place—one borne out of persistence and ingenuity.