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PUTTING DOWN ROOTS: Thor and Catherine Bersted care for 4,200 lavender plants in the James River Valley. Their goal is to bring the tally up to 10,000 plants.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS: Thor and Catherine Bersted care for 4,200 lavender plants in the James River Valley. Their goal is to bring the tally up to 10,000 plants.

Business Spotlight: Destination: Lavender

A career-ending injury and layoff turns family toward a working lavender farm

Posted online

Thor and Catherine Bersted never meant to own a farm. But much changed on June 26, 2013.

Thor experienced a severe injury during a training session for his Springfield Police Department duties. At least one doctor said it was career ending.

“I didn’t take that well,” he says.

Five years to the day later, the couple’s hillside property in Clever is home to 4,200 lavender plants, and the Bersteds are winding down their second full season harvesting and making small-batch products.

Welcome to Lavender Falls Farm LLC. Some 8,000 people are again expected to visit the farm during the growing season to taste lavender-infused foods at the cafe and shop lavender-based products on display. They’re also free to walk by the rows of lavender, down into a playful valley and back up toward a cascading 300-foot fall.

The Bersteds have slowly created a destination centered on lavender but involving manufacturing, production and food and beverages. Oh, and live music in the evenings.

“We give you the place and means to relax. You take it from there,” Catherine says.

The pace is frantic for the Bersteds, though. They work six days a week and 18 hours a day – for 5.5 weeks of the year, ending in June.

“That’s small business,” Thor says.

Lemons to lemonade
Thor researched the lavender industry while in the hospital. He quickly placed an order for 768 lavender plants.

“I don’t remember doing it,” he says of the decision while medicated and before consulting with Catherine. “She was initially upset. But she got the family behind it: ‘Let’s plant it for this crazy man. We know it’s all going to die in Missouri.’”

Those tough decisions in 2014 sprung to life a family farm.

The first small harvest was in June the next year, and the lavender was simply bundled and dried.

Then, a career setback came Catherine’s way.

“I was let go from my job on Labor Day,” says Catherine, a physical therapist by trade.
Now, she was fully focused on the farm.

Thor says they received a manufacturing zoning on the land and started extracting lavender oil to experiment in handmade products. Farmers markets were the testing grounds.

“By the end of December, we realized it had legs,” he says, recalling regularly selling out at the markets. “We doubled down.”

In spring 2016, 3,600 more plants took root in the farm’s soil.

The Bersteds began going to outdoor festivals in St. Louis, Texas and Arkansas, with thousands of bundles and hundreds of pounds of oils. Another vendor suggested selling from a kiosk.

Catherine didn’t like the idea.

“But I bought a kiosk,” Thor says, chuckling.

So they set up shop in Battlefield Mall. Talking to shoppers, Catherine admits she got ahead of herself.

“I finally had my moment,” she says.

Catherine began telling people they were opening the farm to the public next summer – and it’d have a cafe and bar.

“All we had were two falling down barns,” Thor says.

They made use of the barn wood – along with industrial windows they bought from the old Solo factory in Springfield.

Course corrections
Now, it’s reservations only – and strictly no single occupant vehicles.

The cafe and grounds comfortably handles 110 people, but there’s only 42 makeshift parking spaces.

“We have room for more bottoms than we do cars,” Thor says.

The Bersteds say part of the appeal is the remote, natural feeling on the farm.

“It took us half a day to get here from Springfield,” says a customer strolling in, hands locked with his partner’s. They’re arriving at 11 a.m. sharp, the cafe’s opening time.

Lavender Falls Farm sits about a mile northwest of Two Rivers Mountain Bike Park, on the other side of the James River, and straight south of Hidden Valley Golf Links. On the map, the farm is 20 miles from Springfield’s square. GPS takes a route from the Cox and Republic roads intersection, all the way south past Nixa High School and right into the driveway without making one turn. The drive is windy and scenic.

The Bersteds are making some course corrections on the farm’s profit margins. With goals of 40-50 percent margins, operations last year came in at 5-6 percent profit margins.

“We made a few mistakes,” Thor acknowledges, pointing to overstaffing and limiting its reservations.

Now, they’re not delegating as much, and monitoring beverage pours and food waste according to restaurant standards.

“We’re like a backyard cafe that’s learning quickly,” Catherine says, declining to disclose annual revenue.

They expect 40 percent margins this season, which would allow them to continue reinvestments in the property. Even though profits were tight, The Bersteds invested to extend the patio deck overlooking the valley behind their home.

On the product side, they say lotion is the best seller, followed by lip balm and linen spray.

The products move via e-commerce on their site and at boutiques in St. Louis, Dallas and two markets in Oklahoma. In Springfield, Rosette Studios downtown is known to carry Lavender Falls’ products, and they’ve also partnered with 4 by 4 Brewing Co. to make a honey/lavender hefeweizen.

No matter the product, the distilled oil is key. About 2,000 plants will yield 170 pounds of oil, Thor says.

“It carries us throughout the rest of the year,” he says.

In Clever, June 30 was the last scheduled day of the season. Why close down the cafe after harvesting?

“It’s our kids’ home first. It’s a lavender farm second. And the cafe is third,” Catherine says.

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