Hope and Innovation: A Quest for an Old-Fashioned Seed Machine

Can you help an organic lavender farmer keep her dream afloat?

Because she’s dubbed the “Lavender Lady,” most people might expect Norma DeCamp Burns to envision hope as a soft, supple shade of purple. It turns out her version is closer to a glistening stainless steel — perhaps even a slight shade of rust.“Lavender Lady” Norma DeCamp Burns

“I need to find an old-fashioned seed-cleaning machine,” says Norma. “Or an engineer out there to help me design something new, lean and effective. It’s the missing piece of my puzzle.”

Norma’s puzzle is figuring out how to keep her North Carolina family farm from disappearing. In the Tar Heel state, that is an uphill battle; North Carolina loses 55 acres of farmland each day.

She single-handedly operates Bluebird Hill Farm in Bennett, NC, where she grows USDA Certified Organic fresh herbs, specialty vegetables and Grosso Lavender — ideally suited for the temperate Southeast climate. 

Norma is an innovator and entrepreneur by nature; she does not shy away from a challenge. She is a teacher, an architect and, most recently, an organic lavender farmer. But she never meant to start a farm. She and her late husband, Robert Burns, a former department head of N.C. State University’s School of Architecture, moved to Bennett in 1999. One of the first things she did was plant a garden. A big one. Norma lost Robert a few years later in a car crash. By then, her garden had become Bluebird Hill Farm, and her entrepreneurial spirit had turned a personal commitment into a thriving, small business.

Bluebird Hill FarmToday, her farm and its signature red barn serve as a destination for weddings, picnics, artist retreats, photography classes and more. Norma also offers guided lessons on soil conditions and responsible farming techniques to help protect bees, bats and birds. Her community-supported agriculture shares (known as CSAs) provide fruits, vegetables and herbs to more than dozen subscribers.


Searching for green capital

As the years rolled by, business bustled. Norma’s CSA accounts were humming, and the lavender orders were rolling in. Yet with each pending lavender harvest, she faced a recurring problem: she was significantly undercapitalized. She sold directly to individuals, restaurants and co-op markets — but reached a point where she could not increase her productivity without increasing her capacity. With warmer summers beginning in 2009, lavender in North Carolina can only be harvested during a one-week window in June, otherwise the flowers become too mature to be useful. 

“What any small business really needs is access to capital,” says Norma. “For years, we hosted a lavender harvest festival and brought in volunteers to help us.”

In exchange for donated labor, she offered free fishing, homemade lunches and bouquets of fresh lavender flowers to each volunteer. Even with the extra labor, it was impossible to harvest by hand more than a few rows of all the lavender she grew each year in the short seven-day time span.  

“Even during our most productive years, we were only able to harvest and process four of the 13 rows,” she says. “At the time, my biggest challenge was to find — and then figure out how to pay for — some sort of solution to increase our yield.”

That’s when Norma turned to The Conservation Fund’s ShadeFund program, which provides small loans to green entrepreneurs. With a little backing from Mercedes-Benz, Norma received a $25,000 loan, which she immediately used to buy a special harvester and an 85-gallon distiller.

“People worldwide are rediscovering the benefits of buying local foods and goods,” says ShadeFund Director Rick Larson. “They are fresher, tastier and more nutritious. Buying directly from family farmers helps them stay in business, which is also good for our local economies. Locally grown food is better for the environment because sustainable, local harvests cut down on chemical use, transportation and storage, which means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and cleaner air for this generation and the next.”

 “In 2011, using the harvester we bought with the ShadeFund loan, we harvested all 13 rows of lavender in two hours,” Norma says. “It was incredible. We used the distiller to produce nearly eight times more essential oil than ever before. Basically, we’ve quintupled our productivity.”


Wanted: An old-fashioned seed machine

Norma’s next challenge lies not only in the enhanced production of the essential lavender oils, but also in the removal of the lavender buds from their stems. For the plants that she does not distill into essential oil, she dries, cleans and sells the lavender buds to companies like Native Touch, a Native American-owned company specializing in body care that buys Norma’s lavender for sachets it sells online. Each harvested bundle of lavender needs to be dried, de-budded and cleaned by hand. Winnowing lavender to remove debris and then extracting the sticks and stems by hand can take up to six hours yet yield only a pound of finished lavender for sachets. That’s too long. 

“I’m looking for a good, old-fashioned seed cleaner that can be converted into a bud cleaner,” says Norma. “In my hunt, I’ve found very expensive machines for mass production. Outsourcing to a cleaning service is a possibility — but that’s not what I need. There has to be something small out there I can buy. Or perhaps sitting in an old barn somewhere we will find the perfect, broken-down, rusty machine I can copy and build myself.”

Norma wants to be able to control the quality of her product by keeping all of her production on site. She has even corralled a friend who is a design engineer for a large technology company for help in building a machine from scratch. 

Bluebird Hill FarmIn the meantime, Norma is building another large bed that will grow ginger in the warmer months and lavender in the fall. Next year, she will have double the lavender to harvest, distill, dry and de-bud.

“Each of us has to find a way to be creative and make something we are proud of every single day,” she says. “I’ve figured this out in the past. I’ll figure it out again. I know in my heart there is someone out there who knows exactly what sort of equipment I need.”

She has hope. And perhaps a little bit of faith. 

“I’m just going to keep planting. The machine (and the money) will come.”   


How you can help:

  • Get creative. Do you have an innovative seed machine suggestion for Norma? Leave a comment with your tip or contact.
  • Go shopping. Bluebird Hill Farm sells lavender and dried herbs and herbal products at localharvest.org and bluebirdhillfarm.net. The 2012 harvest will be available in late June.
  • Give back. Support more green entrepreneurs like Norma via a tax-deductible donation to The Conservation Fund’s ShadeFund program.


We asked experts, authors and readers like you to share their stories of Hope. Every day for the next month, you'll find new tips for optimism on Gaiam Life, the Stream of Consciousness blog and our social media sites: Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. And don’t miss the GaiamTV.com Hope Film Festival, with FREE films all month long.

The Conservation FundJena Thompson Meredith directs The Conservation Fund’s Corporate Relations efforts and its Go Zero program, an initiative to help address two of the greatest environmental challenges of our time — habitat loss and climate change. Donations from more than one million Go Zero customers have helped plant native trees in protected state parks and national wildlife refuges that will capture and store carbon over time, while also creating forest habitat that is critical to birds, fish, bears and other wildlife.

Headquartered in Arlington, Va., The Conservation Fund understands that for conservation solutions to last, they need to make economic sense. With their wildlife agency partners, they’ve saved land in all 50 states — more than 7 million acres since 1985.

When she’s not on in the boardroom of a corporate partner presenting on how to blend economic and environmental goals or slogging though the swamp with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist to check out the latest Go Zero location, you’ll likely find Jena cleaning her mask and snorkel, preparing for her next dive in San Diegowith her husband.

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