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Purple passion in Rakaia

Purple passion in Rakaia
NZLavender marketing director Leonie Paloma and owner Dr John Yi Jiang pose with the farms sign, a popular spot for visitors to take photos in the colourful fields. PHOTO CLAIRE INKSON

A passion for lavender oil's therapeutic and health benefits has seen two Chinese medicine practitioners become hands-on owners of New Zealand's largest organic lavender farm in Rakaia.

Dr John Yi Jiang and Qing Wang purchased the NZ Lavender farm in 2019 after Jiang experienced the health benefits of lavender first-hand.

The previous owner of the lavender farm gave Jiang a bottle of oil to try. He used the oil to treat his persistent mouth ulcers and was impressed with the results.

"I had ulcers in my mouth for nearly forty years because we had been working very hard in China, and I was very stressed.

"I had tried Chinese and Western medicine; I tried everything.

"But then I rubbed the lavender oil on my ulcers, and it relieved the pain within five seconds.

"It was amazing.”

NZ Lavender Farm was on the market, and after two years of deliberating, Jiang and Wang purchased the 50-acre property with no prior knowledge of farming but a passion for creating high-quality, pharmaceutical-grade lavender oil.

"We didn't know how to drive a tractor; we didn't know how to farm. We only knew medicine."

After purchasing the farm, Jiang and Wang initially continued to work full-time in their Chinese Healthcare clinic, AcuCentre, which has branches in Christchurch and Ashburton.

Jiang quickly realised that for the lavender farm to succeed, he would need to be on-farm, at least part-time, to keep a watchful eye on the operations.

"In the beginning, I relied on people to manage the farm while I worked in the clinic full-time, but the first two years were a disaster."

The farm has over 110,000 Lavendula Augustafolia ‘Avice Hill' plants, which are hand-weeded and grown using organic methods.

The Avice Hill cultivar, named after the Christchurch herbalist who discovered the species, is unique because it is one of the lowest allergen varieties, making the oil perfect for medicinal use.

Careful attention to detail throughout all stages of growth and production ensures a high-quality oil, with around 600 litres produced each harvest.

Weeding is a delicate process, with care needed by a staff of around 15 to avoid damaging the plant's fragile flowers.

Jiang said that finding staff to work in the fields has been challenging.

"It's very hard to get people to work here, even when we pay $28 per hour for pulling weeds.

"People would come for an interview but not turn up for the job."

This year, Jiang said staff have been easier to source, with visitors to the district wanting a "working holiday".

Harvest takes place typically in early to mid-January over a period of around two weeks.

Three staff are responsible for the harvest, with the farm using a specialised Clier harvester imported from France.

Once harvested, time is of the essence to ensure the highest quality lavender oil.

All flowers go from the field to the farm's distillery within an hour of harvest.

Oil is extracted using a computerised steam distillation process before being decanted into glass bottles.

During flowering, the farm opens its gates to visitors who can have their photos taken in the picturesque purple fields.

A farm shop carries lavender products visitors can purchase to experience the benefits of lavender at home.

Export of the oil was a significant focus of the business by the previous owners, but Jiang has expanded into a range of beauty and household products aimed at the local market.

NZLavender marketing director Leonie Paloma says the products are designed for New Zealand households who have strong ethics about what products they choose.

"We endeavour to offer affordable pro-active alternatives to use in everyday life.

"We try to open the door to people who want to go down a more natural path."

The product range, which includes face creams, sleep balms, lavender tea and honey, is sold on the NZ Lavender website, at the farm and in local stores.

By Claire Inkson