Beyond the din of the highway and suburbia, sisters Joanne Voelcker and Amy Saha for years have grown thousands of lavender bushes, inspired to bring a corner of Europe’s famed fields of beauty to Chester County.
Beyond Voelcker’s back door lies a 42-acre private paradise, grounds to rows of lavender, patches of wildflowers, and a pasture of grazing horses. Tucked away at the end of a peaceful but otherwise unassuming Valley Township neighborhood, the centuries-old farm, known as Mount Airy Lavender, is a tribute to beauty, hard work, and the chance to cultivate creativity.
Saha, a biochemist who works in quality assurance at West Pharmaceutical Services, had long harbored a vision to work in a creative profession. This, she said, is her opportunity.
“A lot of people, they question their ability. Like, how do I know I’ll ever be creative? How do I know I’ll ever get a job in something creative? So I never pursued that, you know,” she said. “But I always liked more of the arts, and even in college, that was a lot of my electives, the arts. So this is our chance to be creative.”
Voelcker, the eldest of five children, said she and her sister transform lavender into everything from body butter to insect repellent.
Working with the plant, Voelcker said, recalls fond memories. She lived in Brussels, Belgium, for five years while working for Vanguard Group, from which she retired nearly two years ago. While in Europe, she visited France’s rolling fields of colorful lavender, too.
“I had lavender right outside my house in Brussels,” she said recently, seated behind the steering wheel of a golf cart she drove around the farm, with her sister in the back. “And when we were house-hunting, the lavender lined the driveway and the walkway, and that was the big selling point for me. I saw it and I just thought, ‘Oh, I love it.’”
In 2012, when she was back in Pennsylvania, she thought fields of lavender, resplendent in purple, would help amplify the beauty of her family’s farm. She started planting.
But her plan has encountered difficulties.
The sisters, like thousands of others who rely on the outdoors for a living or a hobby in Pennsylvania, watched with dismay as ceaseless rain and wildly shifting temperatures threw their plans astray. This year, for the first time, Voelcker and Saha lost nearly all their lavender.
Lavender that would normally be in full bloom at this time of year is gone. Only the brown skeletons of bushes remain.
“When it is in bloom like those pictures, it’s just so magnificent,” Voelcker said, holding up old photos of their lavender in bloom, a stark contrast to the barren field in front of her.
“You know, it makes me cry. It’s just so beautiful,” she said, laughing through the start of tears. “And the reason you’re getting a lot of emotion from me — it’s a lot of work.”
The loss of the lavender stings. But, the sisters say, their farm and family are no strangers to overcoming difficulty.
Their parents, Nancy and Richard, bought the dilapidated property in 1971, undertaking a behemoth renovation effort while raising five children.
“The farmhouses were really beat up at the time," Voelcker said. “And there were no bathrooms, just an outhouse. And there was just one of those pumps in the kitchen for water. And a few strings of light bulbs, but not much electricity. And no heat, so the floor was all buckled up.”
In the early 2000s, the family fought the City of Coatesville’s efforts to condemn their farm and build a $60 million recreational complex on the land, calling it jurisdictional overreach. In 2006, after a long eminent domain battle that attracted widespread attention, Coatesville claimed around six acres from the Sahas and settled for $227,000, a sum that didn’t cover the family’s $300,000 legal fees.
But there are the good moments, too, the sisters say.
Saha got married on the farm, in a field just yards from her parents’ house. Years later, so did her daughter.
Voelcker, deeply attached to the farm, built her own home on the property. Eventually, Saha moved just a few doors down. And their parents continue to live on the farm, watching their daughters make a name for themselves out of lavender.
“As you’re walking up the driveway, it has an essence,” Saha said. "Lavender has that appeal — that serenity, that peacefulness.”
On a recent day, her eyes took in the late afternoon sky, a serenely blue panorama crossed with a thicket of trees.