French Provence is at its most beautiful in summer when the lavender flowers. The mountain village of Simiane-la-Rotonde, northeast of Apt, in the Luberon region is known as an important center of lavender-growing. 70% of all of the essential lavender oil made in France finds its way through the village. Nicolas Landel is convinced that “the best lavender in France grows here”. He is farm manager at Young Living and oversees the French side of the US company specialising in essential oils.
In Provence there are 50 farmers growing lavender on around 2,500ha, as well as, on a smaller scale, other herbs such as hyssop, rosemary or clary sage for the company. The farms are located within a radius of 150km from Simiane-la-Rotonde.
This cooperation began 28 years ago. The American farmer Gary Young visited Provence and a friendship began between him and Nicolas’ father, Jean-Noël Landel. “My father had a distillery and contact with the farmers. They were initially skeptical about working with the American.” Then the sales markets began to weaken, but Young continued to pay good prices to the farmers for good quality lavender. “This laid the foundation for what is still a good working relationship today,” explains Mr Landel.
Philippe Gaillard (25) is one of these lavender farmers. With his 60-year-old father he runs the farm “Les Maurelieres”, a few kilometres outside Simiane-la-Rotonde. The farm has an area of 125ha, 100ha of which are currently used to grow lavender. In the next three years another 50ha will be added, of which the first 25ha will be planted in 2020. An “ideal area for growing lavender,” says Mr Gaillard, describing the countryside he calls home.
We live here in an ideal area for growing lavender
Lavender likes it to be sunny and dry and grows at altitudes between 600 and 1,400m, and best between 1,000 and 1,200m. “Les Maurelieres” is situated at 850m and the Luberon region has always been a traditional lavender-growing area. Lavender has also been part of the Gaillards’ agenda for several generations. “That’s probably a good 200 years old,” Mr Gaillard says, pointing to an old stone wall on his farm. Their tractors stand right next to it. The cultivation of lavender used to be a lot of manual work, but today it is mechanised.
In organic cultivation, as with Philippe Gaillard, the lavender is cultivated in rotation with einkorn wheat. Lavender grows in the field for 10 years, with the sole addition of organic fertiliser. In the first year it does not yet produce any yield, but produces 60% from the second year, and from the third year the plant reaches its full size. After the 10th year the rootstocks are removed and einkorn wheat crops, or, in the case of the Gaillards, clary sage or hyssop as well, follow for three to four years.
Work in cooperatives
Some farmers drive their sheep out to the fields to eat the weeds. They don’t like the smell of lavender, so they leave it be. Philippe Gaillard, however, fights weeds mechanically.
Until 40 years ago, the Gaillards had their own distillery for the extraction of essential oils on the farm. Nowadays it is often more efficient to share the work. The farmers work in cooperatives. Some need tractors or machines, others, like Gaillard, give their harvest to distilleries. One of them is not far from Simiane-la-Rotonde.
Benoît Cassan manages this distillery. He is in his early 40s and a farmer himself and is already a fourth-generation lavender-grower. His farm has an area of 200ha. Already at the age of eight Benoît Cassan was in the field with his father and grandfather, cutting bouquets by hand. When Gary Young came to France looking for farmers to help him, the Cassans were there from the start. Mr Cassan says he has gained a lot from the cooperation over the years. “Most of all, I’ve learned to appreciate my work.”
Over five weeks each summer a total of 300 people from all over the world get to experience this appreciation: they take part in a programme that goes by the motto “From Seed to Label”. They get to know the landscape and farmers, visit Benoît Cassan’s distillery, and a grain mill, learn more in lectures and help in the fields. There they learn how to cut bouquets with a special sickle, just like in the old days, or how to weed. Today the lavender is harvested by machine. It is done using a tractor with a special mower deck that runs alongside and leads to a very deep tipper. The group also gets to see this in action.
In the field next to the lavender there is a very short grain with thick ears: einkorn. Petit Épeautre, small spelt grain, as it’s called in the vernacular. It was once the most important cereal on the barren Provencal soil. Einkorn traditionally follows lavender in crop rotation. Thanks to organic cultivation, this old type of grain has never completely disappeared.
Ideal crop rotation
Einkorn does not need fertiliser or plant protection measures even in these unfavourable habitats and is also good for soil quality. In the past, growing einkorn was thus often an economic way of improving soil fertility. Due to the long growth phase – einkorn is sown in September and harvested in August of the following year – the grain forms very long roots. So it is very robust and can handle dry periods and freak weather well.
The number of farmers putting einkorn back into crop rotation is increasing. In 2019, for example, €200,000 (about £170,800) were invested in two new grain silos with a capacity of 600t each. They stand in the farmyard of Jerome Reynard (42) in Sault, only 15 minutes from Simiane-la-Rotonde. The farmer himself cultivates 300ha, of which 100ha are intended for lavender, einkorn and clary sage, with other grains grown on the rest of the acreage. He operates two grain mills and various plants for rinsing, cleaning, sieving, shelling and sorting the einkorn. “We feed the bran, which is produced during grinding, to the pigs,” explains Reynard during the tour of the farm. The pods – a by-product of shelling – are mixed with lavender flowers to fill pillows and sold all over the world.
Gael Boeglin, who is responsible for the technical maintenance of the systems, and Cyril Cornabe as quality manager work in the warehouse. Sacks filled with einkorn are deposited in a bay, each one holding one tonne. “The grain can easily be stored for up to a year,” explains Cyril. For overseas deliveries, for example, a truck transports the grain to the port of Marseille, two hours away. One month later the order is in the US. Today, einkorn is available as flour, baking mix, granola, whole grain, and also processed into noodles.
The dream team
The old grain variety, einkorn, is on-trend. For example, it is said to be easier to digest for people with gluten intolerance. Demand is rising, and not only abroad. Einkorn wheat is also experiencing a revival in France. Even the small bakery, “Barret”, on the main road of Simiane-la-Rotonde boasts an impressive variety of einkorn products. Nicolas Landel recommends the Boulangerie Au Pierrot d’Antan in Rustrel, half way along the road back to Apt. Fine-food lovers from far and wide make the pilgrimage to this place.
Einkorn grows along the road that takes you, while lavender blossoms on the sloping slopes, right up to the top. There they are again: the dream team. “Simply an ingenious crop rotation,” says Mr Landel. “One of the reasons why the farmers in this area are so proud is because they are able to continue a tradition.”
Einkorn celebrates its comeback
Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) belongs to the oldest arable crops in Central Europe and has been cultivated since at least 3,000 BC. Einkorn was widespread until Roman times. Later, it was almost completely replaced by bread wheat and durum wheat and only clung on in mountainous regions with barren soils. Laying claim to a total area under cultivation of around 1000ha, it is only of minor significance in Europe today (mainly in Austria, Italy, Hungary and France). The cultivation of Einkorn has never been abandoned completely in Provence, where it has traditionally followed the lavender as part of crop rotation.
Einkorn has been celebrating a comeback for about a decade. Once more, we can appreciate its merits: it is hardy, makes few demands on the soil, and copes well with periods of drought. It also contains very little gluten and is easily digestible. In Haute-Provence, farmers have joined forces to promote the cultivation of einkorn. Since April 2010, the variety native to Haute Provence has carried the EU “Protected Geographical Indication” seal.