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Lavender field, ready for harvest.

I’m all about sourcing local when I can, both for my own use, and for products that I sell. But soap, in particular, is difficult to source ingredients for locally. Coconut oil, nope. Palm oil, nope. Olive oil…well, I could get it from California if I wanted to pay 3 times the price. Other than the local bees wax in my products, and the few that contain locally sourced lard or tallow, not much of my cosmetic line can be locally sourced. But, last fall, my husband and I visited the SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture and Energy) Center in Boardman Oregon, just 80 miles south of us, and toured their educational exhibits. The place is dedicated to learning about modern agricultural practices on the Columbia Basin. This is big ag, not small 5 acre mom and pop farms. But its an interesting and interactive exhibit, and well worth the visit, especially if you have kids. DSC08826watermarkDuring the course of our visit, I noticed that one of the interpretive displays mentioned a local facility that was distilling peppermint essential oil. I use peppermint essential oil in several of my toiletry products, from lip balm to soap, and so made a mental note to follow-up and find out more. (While we were there, I inquired about selling my soaps in their gift shop, which they now carry). I followed up a few months later, and was able to contact Carl, one of the owners of this large essential oil operation (I’ll refrain from naming them). I explained that I was a soap maker and would love to be able to source some of my essential oil locally, rather than from some large company that often sourced it from another country. We talked on the phone last winter, and he agreed to allow my husband and I to come visit when they were processing the following summer.

They only process the oils for a couple of weeks a year. It’s a short window between harvest and shipping the essential oils off in 55 gallon drums to the companies for which they are being contract grown. The oils mostly end up in food products or things like toothpaste. Originally, we were aiming for a visit in the first week of July. And then this spring happened. Warm. Wet. Early early early. I contacted Carl at the beginning of June and asked, “are you guys about 2 weeks ahead this year”. Indeed they were, and so we arranged a visit on June 24th.

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Custom build harvester, that is able to cut the lavender blossoms in the curved shape in which the plant grows.

This is a BIG operation. They are organized to the hilt, and actually have several locations in which they distill the oils. They specialize in different kinds of mint, some dill, and just recently, Lavandin grosso (this is a hybrid type of lavender that has a more camphorous note to it). We were so grateful for the time Carl spent with us, taking time out of his busy day to show us around a bit and explain the operation. I asked about taking photographs, and he asked me not to photograph the equipment, as it’s all custom and proprietary.

They actually harvest directly into what appear to be straight forward semi truck trailers. But the trailers have perforated steam tubes in the bottom. When the trailer box is full, it’s pulled into a special spot and steam is piped into the bottom. The steam works its way up through the huge load of plant matter, and then out through pipes in the top, over to a condenser to cool it back down, and then the essential oil itself is collected in large collection containers. At one point, we were standing between two of the trailers talking, and I asked if we could move because I literally couldn’t breathe from the mint fumes. So amazing to see an operation like that at that scale. The entire operation, from harvest to end product, is monitored and computerized. Just the complexity of the custom computer program made my head spin. DSC08834watermarkWhen essential oils are steam distilled, the yield is typically somewhere from 1% to 3% of the original plant. So 100 oz (6 1/4 lbs) of plant or flower will give you from 1 to 3 ounces of essential oil. I typically use from 2 to 4 ounces (1/4 to 1/2 cup) of essential oil in one batch (18 bars) of soap. It’s THE most expensive ingredient in soap making, and one of several reasons that I don’t work exclusively in essential oils. This is also why you don’t see a lot of people doing home distilling of essential oils!

I brought along a couple of empty 750 ml alcohol bottles with reliable closures (essential oils can eat right through a lot of different kinds of plastic – ask me how I know, lol). They used a turkey baster and pulled oils right off the top of the 55 gallon drums for me. I brought samples of my current lavender and peppermint soaps to share. I would have been happy to pay for the oils, but they aren’t set up (at ALL) to deal with this kind of small quantity or direct sale. They deal in tons, not ounces. And they decidedly do NOT want the general public showing up with a bottle and asking for a sample. So again, I won’t name the company.

I’ve now made several batches of soap with the oils. They will be for sale at the SAGE Center in a month or so, and I’ll be mailing some to Carl as well, in deep appreciation for the tour and his time, and the work he and partners do in the Columbia Basin, keeping farming alive and well in the local area. I’m set for peppermint and lavendin EO’s for about the next year!

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2015, where the lesson here is, it never hurts to ask!

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