5/31/2014 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Segeant N.Y. Correspondent
Sue Chmieleski never meant to operate a farm. When she purchased her rural property in Red Creek, N.Y., in 1997, the stay-at-home mom raised a few animals for pleasure — goats, chickens and the like — and made her own soap, which she sold. She liked lavender and wanted more to include in her soap recipes. She never dreamed her small enterprise would attract thousands to her “hobby” farm each year.
Though unsure if lavender would grow in Upstate New York, Chmieleski sent soil samples to her local Cornell Cooperative Extension office. Testing revealed that her soil pH level was around 5.5 to 6. Lavender thrives in soil with 7 pH or higher. So, she spread lime on the soil in the fall to raise the pH and planted a test bed in 2003. It survived the winter.
“I thought it was a unique plant up here,” she said. “Once I knew it would do well here, I put in a lot more.”
The thriving lavender supplies her soap-making ventures and she sells the fragrant plant in bundles as well. She named her operation Ol’Factory Farm as a tribute to its fragrant crops of lavender and herbs.
“Other than the lime, lavender has very few requirements,” she said. “Really good drainage is important. It thrives in rocky, sandy soil. It has to have full sunlight to do well, too. It will grow well in sun, and with better flowers, and it’s better for lavender oil.”
She has observed deer running through her fields without pausing for a sample, and has experienced no trouble with rabbits digging it up.
“Lavender is pretty disease resistant,” Chmieleski said. “I don’t use weed killer or pesticides. I think in climates where you have a lot of humidity, you might have more problems.”
Extremely cold weather has damaged some of her plants, which she hopes to replace this year. She keeps weeds down by either tilling or planting grass between rows, the latter method maintaining cleaner pathways after rain.
Though Chmieleski didn’t grow up on a farm, she always gardened and uses her background in accounting to help her business. The soap making grew from “trial and error,” she said, and by reading books about the craft.
“I couldn’t stand sitting behind a desk for eight hours,” Chmieleski said. “I love being outdoors in the garden. I love planting, it’s like therapy.”
After she first expanded her lavender planting, she wondered what else she could do with her lavender fields. When attending the Pennsylvania Lavender Festival at Willow Pond Farm in Fairfield, Pa., she realized that she could host a similar event in Red Creek.
She planted more lavender and formed plans for hosting the New York Lavender Festival. She has continued the annual event on the second weekend of each July. The seventh annual festival will be at Red Creek, N.Y., on July 12 and 13, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day.
Her 1,200 plants, among three fields, equal about an acre, which supplies plenty for her own use and for the festival. Five hundred people showed up the first year and, seven years later, it’s still expanding.
Friends and family (she has three grown children) help her during the festival, but otherwise, the farm and soap making are Chmieleski’s own enterprise. Most of her 40 soap varieties she infuses with lavender and other different oils. She also makes a room and linen spray, blends herbs with lavender for an herbal tea, sews herbal “dream pillows,” and crafts flax-seed-and-lavender heating pads.
She sells many dried bundles, and, in season, fresh bundles, too, at local farmers markets, festivals, through her website and on-farm.
The festival has grown to include live music, special speakers on natural products and herbs, a 5K walk-run benefit for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, vendors and a coloring contest.
In recent years, 2,000 or more people visit the farm for the two-day festival. She credits her success to her group of volunteers with whom she meets monthly.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have people willing to help me every year,” Chmieleski said. “They talk about it and spread the word all year long.”
She also said that dealing with reputable vendors helps make the event successful. For example, her portable toilet vendor remains on-call during the weekend of the festival in case the units need additional cleaning.
“It’s like choreographing something, to have it all work out,” she said. “After the festival, we talk about where we can improve things. We’re very open to feedback from people who’ve been here to visit. You can never have too many people to help you. Don’t cut yourself short on help. There’s always something that needs to be done extra.”
She wants to continue to expand the festival and use more land on her farm to plant lavender and other herbs. She also hopes to expand into more herbal tea varieties.
For more information, call 315-754-8828 or visit http://www.nylavenderfestival.com and http://www.olfactorysoaps.com.