SEQUIM, Clallam County —
You know how in an unpleasant divorce the parents agree to be nice to each other for the sake of the kids?
If you’re among the expected 18,000-plus visitors to the Sequim Lavender Weekend that starts Friday — buying up everything from lavender lotion to lavender dog bandannas — you’ll also be in year three of the big split among local lavender growers.
But you won’t notice. There is too much money at stake in what’s advertised as the “lavender capital of North America.” The festival weekend brings in an estimated $3 million, and for some growers, it accounts for a large portion of their annual income.
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As the city pointed out in a memo last year to both bickering groups, “The reality is, visitors don’t care who put on what event …”
Says Scott Nagel, executive director of the Sequim Lavender Farmers Association
, about the reaction he’d get about the feud: “Lavender is supposed to calm you down. You’re lavender farmers. You’re supposed to get along.”
He represents one lavender-growing group, whose 11 members include many of the older, bigger lavender farms. They say they want to retain the farm identity of the group. But there are few specifics about the rift.
The other group is the Sequim Lavender Growers Association
, with 17 members, which includes some farms that produce a lot of lavender and a number of smaller farms. They say they still don’t understand why the other farms left.
With the names of the two groups strikingly similar, you better make sure you pick up brochures from both of them at the visitors center of this little town of 6,600. Neither group mentions the others’ farms in their driving tour map.
The feud got so bad that last year, the city stepped in and brokered an agreement between the two groups.
“Both organizations need to cease from spreading disparaging information about the other group within the community. This only creates doubt about the success and future of the lavender industry in Sequim and may lessen visitors’ desires to return,” wrote Barbara Hanna, communications and marketing director for the city, in a January 2012 memo.
In turn, the city agreed that it would help out with advertising the festival, and pay for police and public works overtime.
What sorts of disparaging information had been said?
“Just comments on the street,” says Amy Lundstrom, who, with her husband, Jeff, runs Nelson’s Duckpond & Lavender Farm.
Lundstrom remembers the night in January 2011 when the breakup took place at a meeting.
The bigger farms, she says, “basically said you do as we say or we’re going to leave, and you’ll be nothing. You’ll be street people.”
The Lundstroms have a 5-acre farm with 1,300 to 1,400 lavender plants.
The owner of one of the biggest farms in the area has a different recollection.
Says Mike Reichner, who runs Purple Haze Lavender Farm with its 40,000 lavender plants, “I think the smaller guys felt they weren’t getting enough attention. But over the last 18 years, I have spent millions and millions of dollars in advertising, so naturally I get a lot more attention than a little soap-maker, a little hobby farmer.”
On that January night, he says, “I walked out. Everybody else walked out (the bigger farmers). I wasn’t going to fight over little menial stuff.”
Reichner, 67, remembers very well how the lavender industry started in the Sequim area.
He and his wife bought 2½ acres in Sequim in 1994, while Reichner still worked as a state park ranger. He built a home there, and in 1995, he read a notice in The Sequim Gazette about a meeting for people interested in growing lavender.
The climate in Sequim is similar to that in the Provence region of France, where lavender is famous.
Reichner remembers hosting the first lavender festival in 1995.
“It was held on the porch of our house and 200 people showed up,” he remembers. “I think we had two or three products for sale, and now we have about 100. We gave people lavender cookies. The rest is history.”
The festival grew and grew, with a street fair, live music, dozens of vendors. Reichner estimates 250,000 lavender plants are grown in the area for retail use.
Then the split came.
Nagel, who had run the festival for the growers association, switched to working for the farmers group.
The Sequim Gazette and Peninsula Daily News chronicled the various spats.
At one point, in January 2011, Port Angeles cops were called in as attorneys for the growers showed up at Nagel’s office in that city to demand documents belonging to the group. The issue was resolved.
State Sen. Jim Hargrove, of Hoquiam, was inadvertently drawn into the feud in March 2012 by innocently sponsoring a resolution commending the festival and the growers.
He didn’t even know there was a farmers group, says a spokesman for his office. Hargrove made sure he made an appearance for the farmers at the opening ceremonies.
This year, visitors will be able to wander between a street fair, sponsored by the growers, and a “Farm Faire,” sponsored by the farmers.
For $15 they will be able to buy a button from the farmers that allows them entrance at six of the big farms, each featuring live bands and food. On their website, it says “Experience the original Heritage Lavender Farms that have made Sequim famous for 17 years!”
The growers, in turn, offer free entrance at the smaller farms, making sure to point out on their website, “FREE or FEE? YOU DECIDE … ”
Sequim City Attorney Craig Ritchie who, of course, has had to deal with the feud, says, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org