Monday, July 23, 2018

Oregon's Lavender Industry is Taking Root

A lighter shade of purple was the color of the day at this years Willamette Valley Lavender Festival.

It's a three day celebration filled with fun, food, music and of course all things lavender. The festival accomplishes several things. It expands awareness of the industry. It's an outlet for showcasing many of the products made by the areas growers and it draws potential customers to their farms.

Willamette Valley Lavender Festival in Newberg, Oregon / Scott Gese
The festival takes place in Newberg, Oregon on the second weekend in July. This is also when most lavender plants in the Willamette Valley are at their peak and ready to harvest. I guess you could consider it a harvest festival of sorts.

Lavender Wands at the Willamette Valley Lavender Festival / Scott Gese

Have you ever been to a lavender farm?

If you'd like to visit an actual working lavender farm, this is the weekend for you. There are a half dozen growers located within a few miles of the festival site. They've banded together to promote a self guided auto tour of their farms. You can get a guide map at the festival if you're interested in making a day of it. Be sure to have your camera handy. There are some incredible pictures to be had as you stroll among the rows of fragrant plants.

U-Picking Lavender in the Willamette Valley / Scott Gese

Small Farms Sprout a Cottage Industry

If you take the tour, what you'll find is that most lavender farms are not as big as you might think. An acre or two is an average size. Very few are more than several acres. For many growers, their farm is a big part of their livelihood. To meet expenses requires one to be creative. You have to do more than just grow plants for u-pickers. Many of the growers produce their own line of hand made lavender based products. The temptation to pick up a bar of fragrant soap or bottle of hand lotion at the register can be overwhelming. Some of the handmade items for purchase might include...
  • Soaps and lotions
  • essential oils and hydrosols
  • lavender honey (from their own bees)
  • jams and jellies
  • teas
  • vinegar
  • baked goods

An assortment of crafts such as lavender wands, pillows and air fresheners are also on hand.

If you're not too keen on rubbing elbows with bees in the field, you can buy bunches of fresh picked or sun dried lavender on the stem. It's also available off the stem by the bagful to use for your own craft ideas.

The Oregon Lavender Industry is Growing

There are more than a dozen lavender farms in the Northern Willamette Valley. Not too many years ago you would have been hard pressed to find half that many. As the popularity of herbal and aroma therapy increases, the lavender plant has become one of the standouts. It's the diversity of this plant that makes it so popular. It has both culinary and medicinal uses. It runs the gamut from fresh cut blooms to oils and hydrosols. The beauty and unmistakable fragrance lends itself to a range of craft and artistic uses as well. Lavender is a very versatile herb whose popularity is growing. The number of farms and acres planted are expanding with each coming year.

Willamette Valley Lavender Field / Scott Gese

Why the Willamette Valley?

The best way to answer this question is by comparison and here's why.
Lavender is following in the footsteps of the very successful Oregon wine industry.

For years France had a lock on what is perceived to be fine wine. California wines crashed that party. But it didn't stop there. Once the bar was set in California, wine grape growers discovered what a few early Oregon growers already knew. There was fertile ground in the Willamette valley.
The word spread and soon Willamette Valley wines were taking home major awards. Vineyards began to expand in both size and number. These days Oregon wines from the Willamette valley are rivaling many California and French wines.  

Willamette Valley Wine Vineyard / Wikimedia

The Oregon lavender industry is on the same track.

It all has to do with Oregon's year round moderate climate and the fertile Willamette Valley soil.

As with wine grapes, the word is beginning to get out about lavender. It grows extremely well in the Willamette Valley. So well in fact, some varieties don't even need to be watered during the growing season. The lavender plant has a reputation for being drought tolerant. That bodes well for growers. Oregon's winter rains is all they need.

Will the Willamette Valley rival the commercial lavender farms in the Provence of France? Judging from past experience, such growth is certainly possible. It's only a matter of time before the first commercial fields show up. From there, step back and smell the lavender.

Lavender Field in the Provence of France / Wikimedia

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Grotto: Portland's Very Own Tranquility Bay

It's beautiful, it's peaceful and best of all it's just minutes from downtown Portland.

If you're like me, there are times when you have a crushing need to get away from the maddening crowd if only for a few hours. Maybe you search out that quiet, “special” place to sit and enjoy some meditative thinking time. Or possibly you find peace and tranquility with a meditative walk in an inspirational garden space. If this sounds like you ... there is this place I know of.

It's an internationally-renowned shrine and botanical garden called the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, or better known to those in the Portland area as “The Grotto”. It was developed by the Catholic church but the grounds are open to everyone.

The space is a culmination of 62 acres of meticulously manicured gardens and pathways. The upkeep is an ongoing ministry courtesy of a group of Franciscan Brothers called Sevite Friars who live in a Friary on the grounds.

The shrine is built around the Catholic Churches strong views concerning Mary, the mother of Jesus. At its center, carved into the base of a 100 foot cliff, is this amazing shallow cave. It's known as Our Lady's Grotto where a life-size replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta is on display. Even if you don't subscribe to the beliefs of the Catholic Church, this one feature in itself is well worth seeing.

It's as close to the original as some of us may ever get.

A life-size replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta 

The Grotto is literally divided into two levels. There's the lower, commercial plaza level and the upper, garden level.

The Pieta is on the plaza level displayed behind an alter where outdoor masses are held. This level also holds a large chapel for indoor masses, called the Chapel of Mary. A walking trail called the Stations of the Cross surrounds the area. The trail showcases many native northwest plants that can be enjoyed while listening to the quiet whisperings of Gregorian Chant as it echo's through the trees.
The visitors complex which includes a gift shop and conference center can be found on this level as well. There's no fee to wander the grounds.

The upper level, which is located 110 feet above the plaza area, is where you will leave behind the “busyness” of the city and the commercial interests of the Grotto.

With no paths leading to this “heavenly” sanctuary, you'll need to take the elevator. Tickets can be purchased at the site's welcome center. The charge is according to age and will cost only a few dollars at the most.

Stepping through the elevator doors onto the upper level will reveal an eye catching view of one of the largest green spaces and best kept secrets in Portland.

The inspiring landscape of well maintained winding pathways work their way through a canopy of mature trees and manicured botanical gardens. Numerous small chapels and religious artwork are laced along the trail for you to discover.

There are many quiet places along the path. No need to look for them, they will seek you out. The chapels are open and invite you to spend precious moments in reflection and meditation.

Chapel of St. Anne

Majestic panoramic views of the Columbia River Valley and Mount St. Helens can be glimpsed in several locations and are well worth the trip to the top.
The Grotto is a peaceful retreat for those in need of a bit of quiet solitude. Over 300,000 people of many faiths take advantage of this special place each year.
The Grotto is open during the Christmas season. It's a special time that reveals another facet of this precious space. A spectacular display of a multitude of shimmering lights will be sure to put you in the Holiday mood.

You can find out more by going here: The Grotto

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Brownsville: My New Home Town

Five years ago my wife and I moved away from Eugene, a Mid-size city/college town at the South end of the Willamette Valley. We had lived there for close to fifty years, but knew we didn't want to retire there. We moved about 35 miles up the road toward Portland to a quaint little town called Brownsville. (pop. 1630) It's one of Oregon's oldest pioneer communities. We were still working at the time, so we commuted from here to Eugene until we retired.

Most people have heard of Brownsville. Maybe even been there a couple of times. When I tell someone who knows of it that I live there. Their reaction is almost always the same. Their eyes light up and a wide smile crosses their face. It seems their whole demeanor changes.
It's as if someone had offered them a whole box of glazed jelly donuts. And almost without question, the first words out of their mouth are, “Really, I've been to Brownsville. I love Brownsville. That's the coolest little town.”

I couldn't agree more.

Welcome to Brownsville, Oregon

Today I'm on an early morning walk. It's the start of another beautiful Summer day. I find myself at the south end of town and as I turn North onto Main street I can see it. Off in the distance, at the far end of the road is the town's original hardware store. It's in the “old town” section of town. The building sits perfectly framed under the steel girders of a faded green truss bridge that spans across the slow rolling Calapooia river. Like a patriarch from the past, it greets everyone who turns north off the highway onto Main street. “Carlson's”. The stores' name is emblazoned across the front of the freshly painted covered boardwalk.

Bridge over the Calapooia. Carlson's straight ahead

It's impossible not to take notice of the old wood and brick framed structure. It comes complete with a couple of hitching posts out front for that subtle hint of authenticity and a reminder that at the time this structure was first built, horses still ruled. I'm impressed at the foresight the original owner must have had. This is a prime real estate location if I ever did see one.  

It may be a simple hardware store, but don't let that stop you from taking a venture inside. As soon as you step through the door you'll get a sense of the towns rich history. The musty smell and easy feel of the old wood floor is unmistakable. The many years of constant use play upon the cracks of the original oiled boards. With each squeak and creak beneath your feet, you'll be hearing the same tune these old growth fir boards have played for over a hundred years. I love it. Maybe you will too.

Carlson's Hardware Store

I'm a regular at the hardware store, but it's only one of many commercial buildings that line Main Street. Several others go way back to the towns early years including the historic Brownsville saloon. Some of the greats of country music used to frequent the saloon in years gone by. It's rumored that actor, Sam Elliott , who makes his home just outside of Brownsville, stops by to tip back a cold one from time to time.  

The Brownsville Saloon

The town also boasts many older historic homes. Some of these grand old manors date back as far as the late 1800's.

The impressive Moyer house is one of them. Its elegant grandeur will catch your eye. What a fine example of an Italianate Villa style home. Built in 1881 by John and Elizabeth Moyer, the house has been completely restored to its original design. It now serves as the town's unofficial ambassador as it beckons passers by to stop and take a closer look. The property is associated with the towns museum and is open for tours.

The Moyer House In Oldtown Brownsville

Brownsville is an easy town to fall in love with. There's a rich history here. A history complete with a gracious and caring community of people who still believe in going out of their way to help a neighbor in need.

For the few years I've been here, I can honestly say I like this town. For what it's worth, all of you “out-of-towners” who get that “glazed jelly donuts” look on your face when you find out I'm from Brownsville. I eat those donuts and yes, they're good.

Main Street in Brownsville, Oregon

Monday, July 2, 2018

What is it about Oregon?

Since Lewis and Clark first explored the Oregon Territory in 1805 there has been a fascination with this part of the country. Early settlers began to migrate this way in the 1830's establishing the beginnings of what would soon became known as the Oregon Trail. By the early 1840's the great migration to Oregon was in full swing.

120 years later, I made the great migration myself. It was 1965 and I was ten. My parents packed up the family and moved here from Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes (and 10 million mosquitoes). Three days with a loaded U-Haul. It was quick and easy. What a difference 120 years makes.

I spent my formative years growing up in the small town of Eugene. When I arrived, the population was a mere 64,000. That' was a far cry from St. Paul, the city I had left behind.

The Great Outdoors

For the past fifty plus years I've explored much of Oregon. From the rugged wind swept coast to the length of the fertile Willamette Valley. Across the high mountains to Central Oregon and on to the sage brush deserts of the Eastern side of the state.

I've hiked many of this states well-worn trails to see my share of magnificent waterfalls. I've fished and floated the mighty McKenzie river. Skied high mountain trails and climbed the amazing Sahara type sand dunes of the Central Oregon coast. Oregon is a virtual playground for outdoor enthusiasts.

Along the trail to Sahalie Falls in Central Oregon

Fishing boats in Newport along the Oregon coast

City Life

There are more opportunities for outdoor activities here than you can shake a good walking stick at, but let's not forget about the other Oregon. That would be its major cities and small towns. There's plenty to do here too.
Portland, the largest city in Oregon is nothing less than amazing. Eugene, a liberal college town has a vibe all its own. The central Oregon towns of Sisters and Bend are always fun to explore and only a day trip away. There are many small towns all across the state. Some have developed a reputation as “antique” towns filled with businesses that specialize in helping you take home a piece of Oregon history.


There are no natural disasters here to speak of. No hurricanes, tornadoes or major flooding. No active volcanoes or ground shaking earthquakes. We do have forest fires in the summer months, but they don't affect the major population centers as they tend to burn in remote areas. If the winds are right, smoke from these fires can make its way into the valley and tend to linger for a time. There's also the looming threat of a major earthquake. The experts say it's not an “if” but more of a “when”. Only time will tell when this event will happen. There will be no warning.

Major snow events don't usually happen west of the Cascade mountains. We have had them, but they're rare. We mostly have rain on this side of the mountains. The rainy season can seem long. The standing joke is that Oregonians don't tan, they rust. A few more sunny days during the Winter season would be great. It hasn't happened in my lifetime so I'm not really expecting things to change any time soon.

Oregon Summers are pretty mild. A few days in the 90's are normal, but that's the extent of our hot spell. 70's and 80's are the norm for our three month Summer season.

What I plan to write about

My plan for this blog is to write about what it's like to live in Oregon. The good, the bad and the rainy. There's plenty of joy to be had here. The trick is to keep the right frame of mind, no matter what the day might bring.
I'll be the first to admit how difficult that can be at times. Especially when the mid-winter clouds and rain block out the sun for weeks at a time. As I get older it becomes more of a challenge. Writing year round on the things about Oregon that bring me joy will help keep those Oregon blues at bay.