After four years of serving his country, deploying twice, Steven Rieker returned home and found another way to serve.
While attending Purdue University in 2017 and studying agricultural economics, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran received an opportunity to attend an Agribility conference in Maine.
On the last day, the group toured different farms, one of them being a lavender farm.
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As he talked to the couple who owned the farm, Rieker found out the man was a fellow Marine Corps veteran.
“He said just how much enjoyment they got out of it, and being something different, it’s something that drew people in,” Rieker said of the lavender farm. “Lavender is a natural estrogen boost, so people, especially women, love the smell of lavender. They had a little shop that could bring people in. When people would come in, it was a stress relief because the natural oils in lavender are a stress reliever.”
From the thousands of plants they grew, the couple distilled the lavender and made oils, lotions, soaps and scrubs, and they also had a contract with a large healthy and beauty brand.
The next week, Rieker began the process of starting his own lavender farm with his wife, Kelsie, on property along County Road 375E in Cortland owned by his parents, Greg and Julie Rieker.
Julie grew up in the house at the top of the hill, and nearly an acre of lavender plants is in a valley behind it, so they came up with an appropriate name for the farm: Rolling Hills Lavender Farm.
They have gone from 33 plugs in 2018 to more than 120 in 2019 and recently bought 1,700 plugs that should be in full bloom in the summer of 2021.
The Riekers recently began the drying process with some of their first bundles of lavender. Their dream is to turn the farm into a destination where people can come and pick their own lavender, and they want to build a home on a hill just beyond the valley.
With plenty of lavender planned to be in full bloom this time next year, the Riekers hope to turn their dream into reality.
“That is something that the lavender farm in Hope does, and they make it like a fun day,” Kelsie said of the agritourism business.
“People can come and get lavender-flavored snacks, and you go out and pick your own lavender and you bring your family and friends and it’s fresh. It’s just part of the experience,” she said. “People around here are used to an agriculture community. They love getting their hands dirty and being a part of the process.”
Developing an interest
Steven, 27, is a 2011 graduate of Columbus East High School, while Kelsie, 25, graduated from Brownstown Central High School in 2013.
Steven then served in the Marine Corps from 2011 to 2015 as an infantryman. He was an automatic rifleman and team leader on the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and a squad leader on the 11th MEU. He left active duty as a sergeant. He then transitioned to Purdue and earned his degree in December 2018 and now handles sales and marketing for FosTecH.
Kelsie attended Indiana Wesleyan University for four years and then did graduate school online through Northwest University for a master’s degree in international community development. She was hired as the worship minister at Seymour Christian Church in November 2018 and still holds that title today.
Steven comes from a farming background. His family has called Cortland home since 1847 and for generations has lived in and cared for land in the area.
Julie grew up on the family farm, now called Red Barn Angus Farm, where they raised a variety of livestock and farmed the land.
When she married and had children, the farm became a second home to Steven and his four siblings. He and three of his siblings are quadruplets, and they have an older brother.
Julie’s dream was to see a house built on the hill beyond the valley, and Steven and Kelsie are going to make that happen.
Farm takes off
First, though, they started the lavender farm.
At the conference in Maine, Steven discovered the value of lavender farming and the hidden potential within lavender agritourism.
“It was something that could draw people in that was different,” he said. “A little business like this is something where we could really pour our hearts and sweat into.”
When Steven discussed the idea with his mom, she was on board.
“Being a small farmer, you have to find that new innovation, and for Steven to come back, he was excited about it and I’m like, ‘Tell me what to order. Let’s go. What do you want to start with?’” Julie said. “We knew the soil type from previous soil samples was very close to what they wanted for lavender plants. He’s like, ‘OK, let’s try it,’ and I’m like, ‘OK. What do we do?’”
Steven ordered 33 plugs through an online wholesaler.
Since lavender is a Mediterranean plant, they had to water them if there were dry spells.
“I will come out and look at the plant, and they’ll show signs of discoloration, a little bit of brown,” he said. “If it’s rotting around the base of the plant, then I know, ‘OK, well, it’s too wet.’ That’s what we learned with the first 33 plants we did. We had a wetter summer, but we had put mulch around them, and that actually hurt them because the mulch held too much moisture in.”
In the winter, they cover the plants when there’s a negative wind chill, a frost and no snow on the ground because that can kill them, Steven said.
When their first plants bloomed, they bundled up the lavender and gave it to family and friends, and Kelsie said people kept asking if they were going to have more lavender.
People typically use it for aroma or decor.
“It’s a big farmhouse trend to have dried flowers, and lavender is a big part of that,” Kelsie said.
When planting nearly 120 plugs in 2019, they used a cloth tarp. Then this year, they used a plastic tarp.
Last year, the Riekers lucked into a sale at Whipker’s Market and Greenhouse in Columbus.
“It was so wet last spring, they had so many excess plants and they had buy one get one free, so we were like, ‘Let’s buy every one that they have,’ so that’s what we did,” Steven said.
Now fully grown this year, the plants are being harvested to sell fresh or dried.
Hard work pays off
Bumping up the number of plugs this year, planting became a family affair. Steven’s parents helped along with his brother, Baron, while Kelsie’s father, Glenn Pullen, used a family tractor to assist.
“We joked about there were sometimes out there that we were blood, sweat and tears and about ready quit, and we were like, ‘Thank goodness we have a visual for what we want to do.’ Otherwise, I would be throwing in the towel,” Kelsie said, smiling.
She realized the work was worth it when she saw the response from people after the farm’s website and Facebook page went live.
“I was just making a Facebook page to have an outlet to sell, and I had so many comments and messages and people sharing. I was blown away. We had almost 7,000 views on our Facebook post, and I am not going to have that much lavender,” she said, smiling. “We just never dreamed it would be that big of a deal, but we’re excited.”
Steven had visited lavender farms in Maine, Oregon and Arizona and knew how popular they were.
“My dad and I stopped at one last year in Heber (Arizona), Windy Hills Lavender Farm,” he said. “The people who run it were very excited, happy people and working hard. They had 10 acres of lavender, and just the community around them and people driving by just love it.”
Kelsie recently had a friend who runs a floral and cake company in Indianapolis reach out to use the farm as a recommended vendor for brides, and people already are asking when the wedding venue at the farm will be ready.
“We weren’t expecting that kind of response instantaneously,” Steven said. “Every time at church especially or wherever, people are like, ‘Oh, you guys are growing the lavender, right?’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah.’”
They plan to add a pond this fall and will go from there.
“As far as building structures, we don’t really know yet. It’s just really going to depend on how the crop does,” Kelsie said. “We noticed that outdoor wedding venues and things like that have become really trendy recently, and so we would like to become an agritourism spot. We don’t have any plans in stone for that yet, but it’s something we would long term like to look at.”
With Lot Hill Dairy Farm nearby selling ice cream and cheese, the Riekers believe the area could become a destination for people.
“We want it where people can come when we get to that point and just enjoy the area,” Steven said.
“For me, just the idea of having something like this is really exciting,” Kelsie said. “Obviously, I love the beauty and the fragrance of the lavender, but to do something that draws people in and builds community is something that is really exciting.”
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For information about Rolling Hills Lavender Farm, call 812-525-7796, visit rollinghillslavend.wixsite.com/rhlf, search for Rolling Hills Lavender Farm on Facebook, follow Instagram at #rollinghillslavenderfarm or email [email protected].