Industry blooms once again

SUN JOURNAL

Lavender: The French government's efforts have helped Provence farmers re-emerge as the world's largest supplier of the aromatic flower.

October 02, 2002|By Elizabeth Bryant | Elizabeth Bryant,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SIMIANE-LA-ROTONDE, France - Here and there in the highest plateaus of Haute Provence, the scent of heady lavender still mixes with sun-baked pine as tractors slice through the last of the season's purple flowers.

At the sprawling farm of Alain Cassan, in the rolling hills of southeastern France, the harvest has ended. Trailers are stacked high with neatly tied bunches of lavender. In the coming weeks, they will be dried, packed in 45-pound burlap bags and shipped to dealers.

The journey ends at trendy boutiques in New York or Paris, where the flowers are sold as dried bouquets or in perfumed sachets.

It's been a middling year for Provencal lavender farmers - unseasonable hail and a dry spell pared their yields. But Cassan, for one, can't complain.

Just a decade ago, when France's lavender industry was perilously close to extinction, the farmer contemplated being the last to practice his family's century-old profession. Today, son Benoit has returned to farming, and the Cassans' operation has expanded.

"You take away lavender farming, and it's finished for us," says Cassan, 58. "If they didn't have this revival plan, I'm not sure we'd be talking about lavender today."

The revival plan, launched in 1994 by the French government, aims to save Provence's cherished lavender heritage, partly by introducing sturdier, more prolific varieties, partly by tailoring farming equipment to suit the region's parched, rocky soil. And short-term subsidies have allowed some growers to increase their production, and others to return to their farms.

"More than its interest as a crop, lavender is key to rural life in Provence," says Patrice de Laurens, director of the National Interprofessional Office of Plants with Aromatic and Medical Perfumes (ONIPPAM), the government office that oversees the lavender revival plan.

"In the zones where lavender grows, there is no other agricultural substitute, except a little wheat farming. And that would demand a huge amount of financial assistance."

The more modest lavender subsidies, which provided about $385 for each new acre of lavender planted, ended last year and reaped stunning results. Over the past decade, lavender production in Provence - the only French region that cultivates the plant - has doubled, to about 65 tons a year.

Provence-based companies, such as the international chain of L'Occitane beauty stores, are capitalizing on their local roots. Others, such as Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble, have signed exclusive contracts with Provence lavender dealers.

"We have to keep this image that we are from Provence," says Bruno Lalande, managing director of Provence-based H. Reynaud & Sons, France's biggest dealer of lavender and lavendin. "It's good business. And also, it is a way of life."

Today, France has regained its seat as lavender king, after years of trailing rivals Bulgaria and Ukraine. Today, Provence generates roughly 65 percent of the world's essential lavender oil, used in soaps, creams and perfumes, and 90 percent of oil of lavendin, a coarser, more prolific variety used in household cleansers.

And if the French revival plan failed to reverse a huge rural exodus, industry officials contend, at least it braked the decline.

Indeed, France's lavender renaissance offers a rare bright spot in a largely bleak agricultural forecast. In 12 years, a third of French farmers have gone out of business, according to a February study by the French research institute CREDOC. The roughly 2 million who remain represent just 3.5 percent of the population, down from 12 percent in 1970.

Adding to farmers' difficulties are proposals to drastically overhaul generous European Union subsidies for other agricultural products. France has long been the top recipient of aid, which critics contend generates overproduction and inflated prices. But slashing the subsidies, French Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard argued in July, threatens "the current idea of civilization and French farming that we have."

Nowhere has France's rural decline been more apparent than in Provence, where lavender - more than olive trees and Vincent van Gogh - is the signature landmark of the rugged Mediterranean region.

Before tourists discovered this land of ancient stone villages, winding country roads and Roman ruins, there were few economic reasons for the inhabitants to stay. Indeed, Provence remained one of the poorest areas in France until a century ago. Farmers raised sheep and picked wild lavender to make ends meet.

But in 1905, the farming of lavender was developed to answer the growing demands of France's perfume industry. The plant's popularity soared in World War I, when army doctors began using it as an antiseptic. At its peak, in 1960, the industry produced 150 tons of essential lavender oil yearly. (Essential oil is a technical term referring to oil from scented plants.)

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