The Lavender Project

Alejandro Morales Enriquez is kneeled down close to the earth, between rows of French lavender. He picks a flower spike and crushes it between his hands, releasing the strong perfume of green honey, herbs and dirt.

The Lavender Project worker Edgar Cano Domenzain

My grandfather taught me that the land is like a woman,” Alejandro explains. “The more you talk to the land – the more you spoil the land – the more it gives to you. The same applies to plants.”

All around us lavender plants are thriving, so there must be some talking going on. This land belongs to The Lavender Project and we’re not in Provence but Guanajuato, Mexico.

The Lavender Project is a social enterprise based in the small community of La Colorada, an hour from San Miguel de Allende. Its aim is to create opportunities and jobs in the local community – to strengthen the community – by farming sustainably and producing and selling value-added products from their crop. The crop they chose was lavender, and it grows across seven-hectares of fertile farming land more traditionally planted out with alfalfa, maiz, beans, chiles and nopal. Through the year the harvest is turned into pure oils, soaps, dried flowers and bath salts at a dedicated workshop – El Taller de Lavanda – just a short drive from the farm.

“Before the Lavender Project, people from our community – particularly young men – often left to find work in the United States,” Alejandro says. “I lived there for five years myself. But that drift weakens the community. It separates families and leaves fewer people to work the land. I returned to La Colorada six years ago to help my grandfather farm and through him got involved with the Lavender Project.” Today the project employs thirty locals in addition to its eleven founding partners, who each contributed start up capital and farmland to launch the co-operative in 2008. Alejandro’s grandfather Pedro Enriquez Enriquez is one of the founders.

The idea for the project was originally incubated within the community by St Anthony’s Alliance – an NGO based in Albuquerque, New Mexico – as a way to create long-term employment opportunities in La Colorada. Collective rural farming made sense but lavender farming clicked for all number of reasons. “Lavender suits the climate and the land here,” says Alejandro. “We don’t need much water. We don’t use any pesticides – and we can harvest up to two times a year.” Even so there was a small gamble when the first crop went in, because no one had grown lavender in La Colorada before. But within a year the nopales and French lavender had proven themselves to be easy neighbours and The Lavender Project had its first, deeply aromatic harvest.

“I think you can grow anything in this soil as long as you use the right words, and have good hands for propagation,” says Alejandro. The soil around La Colorada is red, almost blushing with self-awareness and productivity.

I talk to the soil when we’re planting new lavenders. I talk to the plants when we take clippings and during harvest time. I think there’s a positive difference for crops when you’re more attentive and hands-on.”

Around us, bees are battling for room on the skinny lavender spikes and there are other signs of health: rotund lavender bushes, ladybirds and new growth.

Alejandro manages crops of French lavender, Grosso lavender and, to a lesser extent, Royal Velvet on the farm. The perfume they give off is a honeyed, miscible one, which quickly becomes part of the air, your skin and clothes even after just an hour in the field. The local name for French lavender is lavanda dulce – sweet lavender – and that’s right to the point. The climate in La Colorada is hot and it brings out the best from both lavender and rosemary, which the project grows as a secondary crop.

At the farm there are workrooms for distilling oils and drying lavender spikes, but the principal work at this time of the year is in the field. Small teams are planting new lavenders in between more mature rows and others are pulling up quelite weeds competing for space with the crops. Edgar Cano Domenzain is watering young cuttings in the shade house, resplendent in an un-peaked baseball cap, and engineering work is going on inside the distillation room to fire up the still.

To own your land – to own your project – that naturally brings out enthusiasm and commitment in all of us,” says Alejandro, beginning to grin. “I work six days a week with lavender and on Sundays I go to the football and have a beer.”

From the farm, work moves to the Taller de Lavanda. It’s a brightly painted building that’s become an axis for a good number of locals. Work happens here by hand. In one room large blocks of soap are being cast from hot, liquid mixes and, in another, hardened, rectangular blocks are cut into hearts. Next door in the sewing room women are embroidering cotton eye masks and travel pillows that will ultimately be stuffed with lavender petals and flaxseed. In the middle of all this is a library and banks of computers, which kids from the community can use after school. The smell of lavender here in the workshop is more concentrated – more dense – than out in the field.

Lucia Trejo spends her workdays at the Taller. For the moment her eyes are on the liquid soap being poured into three wooden moulds. “This soap is destined for the Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel de Allende,” she tells me as she works. “We provide the hotel with a range of products on a monthly basis, everything from individual room soaps to spa products.” The Rosewood is no ordinary client to have on your books. It’s a luxurious destination in a city that was named the World’s Best by Condé Nast Traveler in 2013. So it’s only natural that a night in the Rosewood Suite – with sweeping views of San Miguel’s dusty pink churches and sunsets – comes with a bar or two of Guanajuato’s finest jabon de lavanda.

“Our relationship with the Rosewood and other hotels in San Miguel de Allende came about by word of mouth,” Alenjandro tells me. “We’ve been invited to participate in quite a few weekly markets in places like San Miguel and Querétaro. People come across our products and then more relationships slowly start to take shape.” Poco a poco, he says in Spanish, perhaps reflecting on the way lavender grows, oils are distilled, seasons change and communities rebuild themselves from within.