Lavender Enterprise Blooms in Abandoned Quarry

Matt Dolkas - MALT

By Matt Dolkas, Senior Manager, Marketing

July 9, 2024

At Black Mountain Ranch, just outside Point Reyes Station, an unlikely agricultural experiment is taking root. Where heavy machinery once carved stone from barren earth, small rows of fragrant lavender now welcome a wide range of pollinators—part of a bold experiment in land restoration.

For years, the old quarry site at this MALT-protected ranch stood desolate and empty, a reminder of the area’s industrial past. Stripped of its topsoil and fertility, this patch of earth seemed destined to remain a scar on the landscape. But where others saw wasteland, the ranch’s team of land stewards saw potential.

“The quarry was a challenge, no doubt,” says Danny Vitali, the lead horticulturist at Black Mountain Ranch. “But we saw it as an opportunity to try something different, something that could work with the poor soil conditions we had.” 

Their solution? Lavender. 

In 1993, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) protected the 1,190 acres at Black Mountain Ranch with an agricultural conservation easement, ensuring this landscape will forever remain protected from development as well as supporting our regional food economy.

Innovative Thinking, Unconventional Solutions

The 1,190 acres of Black Mountain Ranch stretch across much of the west face of the mountain, one of the most recognizable landmarks in West Marin. In 2021, Marcel Houtzager acquired the property and has spent the past few years bolstering the ranch’s existing agricultural operations, including Stemple Creek Ranch (beef cattle), Little Wing Farm (row crops, quail), Table Top Farms (row crops), Fibershed (ag and eco education), Inventure Institute (ag and eco education), Viviculture (lavender, honey, and wellness), and Three Bags Full (sheep).

Since acquiring the ranch, Marcel and his team have looked for opportunities to demonstrate new models of land stewardship that balance economic needs with environmental responsibility. This work is about finding new ways to make the ranch profitable, as well as helping to innovate new methods of producing food and fiber within Marin County. The lavender project emerged as a promising solution, offering a drought-resistant crop with multiple revenue streams, from essential oils to agritourism. 

Working With Nature, Cultivating Resilience

On a recent swelteringly hot morning, Danny moved through purple rows, carefully harvesting the fragrant blooms at their peak. “I’m satisfied in this work,” Danny explains. “We’re putting this land to use in a way that makes sense for the soil and climate conditions we have here. There’s so much potential when we work with nature.”

Once harvested, the lavender is carefully dried in the ranch’s renovated barn, known colloquially as the “Buddha Barn” for the muraled Buddhas on the front of the building. The plants will later be pressed to extract their precious oils, destined for use in a variety of products like artisanal lavender ice cream to natural beauty products. 

But the benefits of this lavender field extend far beyond its harvest. The project has transformed a once-diminished corner of the ranch and this patch of purple has become an oasis for pollinators, playing a crucial role in supporting biodiversity across the wider landscape.

A Future in Full Bloom

In an era of increasing climate uncertainty, this lavender experiment at Black Mountain Ranch stands as an example of the potential for agricultural adaptability and is a project we can all learn from. Lavender’s natural drought tolerance and resistance to extreme heats makes it an ideal crop for California’s often-unpredictable rainfall patterns and increasing summer temperatures. 

“Drought is a real concern for farmers in this area,” Danny notes. “Lavender allows us to keep land productive with minimal water use. We’re using difficult land, conserving water, supporting pollinators, and creating a valuable product. It’s efficient farming that also happens to look and smell great.”

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